By Paul Kalanithi
Paul Kalanithi was 36-years-old and nearly finished with ten years of training to become a neurosurgeon when he was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. After years of assuming the doctor role, Paul became the patient, with his wife Lucy, an internist, by his side.
When Breath Becomes Air is one man’s parting gift to his family and the larger world. It records his decision to become a doctor after pursuing studies in literature, history, and human biology. As Paul journeyed through his studies, he knew that no matter what his profession, he believed, “There must be a way…, that the language of life as experienced – of passion, of hunger, of love – bore some relationship, however convoluted, to the language of neurons, digestive tracts, and heartbeats.” Paul viewed his profession as a calling, and When Breath Becomes Air charts his journey from a naïve student to a respected neurosurgeon. Parallel to this journey is his role as a husband and the decision to become a father after his diagnosis.
One might think at first glance that When Breath Becomes Air might be too much of a heartbreaker, but I found this book to be life affirming. I was particularly intrigued with Paul’s thought process in finding his calling and how that knowledge guided him through to the end of his life. To this day, that journey he took, now recorded in When Breath Becomes Air, provides a place for others to reflect on their own life decisions. This is an empowering book for anyone looking inward, but I think those in the medical profession, those exploring the dynamics of doctor-patient relationships, and those considering the medical profession or in medical school would also find this book especially enriching.
Reviewed by Lisa Newman