When Breath Becomes Air
Dr. Paul Kalanithi 2016
At the young age of 36, Dr. Paul Kalanithi did more in two years than some do in a lifetime. His motivation was life AND death. In 2013 when Dr. Paul Kalanithi was close to wrapping up a stellar academic career as a neurosurgeon and neuroscientist, and looking forward to embarking on a long prestigious medical career of his choosing, he was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. Instead of continuing to save lives, he was going to need his life saved. One of his first thoughts after receiving the news was determining the best use of his time for the time he had left. Should he continue to do research and perform surgery, or should he commit to the writing he always longed to do? He presented his dilemma humorously to a good friend saying, “The good news is that I’ve already outlived two Brotes, Keats and Stephen Crane. The bad news is that I haven’t written anything.” As it turns out, he ended up doing some of both - practicing medicine and writing. His writing ambition is realized in the form of his memoir, When Breath Becomes Air ... and we’re all better off for it.
In the last nearly two years Paul had left, he documented parts of his childhood, his academic and personal ambitions, along with his challenges as doctor-turn-patient while still practicing, and his passion for literature and writing. He also delved into his longtime query about life in the face of death for the dying and their families. By his side through this whole process was his wife Lucy, a doctor herself, who also wrote the book’s epilogue. Although Paul was transparent about their marriage on the brink of ruin just prior to his diagnosis due to the pressure of medical school and work schedules, he was also optimistic about their impenetrable bond. Not only did Lucy never give divorce a second thought once she knew of Paul’s cancer, but they made the difficult, yet life affirming decision to get pregnant with their first child.
No doubt, most would think this book’s premise could be a recipe for depression and possibly disaster. The reality is, it is anything but that. At one point the book’s editor warned Lucy that the subject matter could illicit one extreme response or another, which could make it a success or failure. Either people embrace and love it, or they can’t deal with it and reject it. To Lucy’s surprise, the former prevailed. The reason for the book’s success is due to the author’s short, but great life as well as his ability to navigate pain and death, with aplomb. He proved to not just be a tremendous human being and surgical talent, but a writing talent as well. When Breath Becomes Air is thought provoking and poignant, making way for all of us to face mortality and ask the important questions.