“I began to realize that coming in such close contact with my own mortality had changed both nothing and everything. Before my cancer was diagnosed, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. After the diagnosis, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. But now I knew it acutely. The problem wasn’t really a scientific one. The fact of death is unsettling. Yet there is no other way to live.” ― Paul Kalanithi, When Breath Becomes Air
When Breath Becomes Air is autobiography of neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi. At the age of thirty-six, on the verge of completing a decade’s worth of training as a neurosurgeon in Stanford University, Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. Life he knew changed. Everything he wanted in life changed.
Paul Kalanithi died in March 2015, while working on this book. This was published post-humously in 2016. When Breath Becomes Air is incredibly powerful, desperate and a poetic read.
Kalanithi was not interested in medicine at all in the beginnning. His father was a doctor and was never home and he wanted a life where he could be closer to his family. The author attended Stanford University where he graduated as Bachelor and Master of Arts in English literature and Bachelor of Science in human biology. After completing the degrees, Kalanithi read Satan, His Psychotherapy and Cure by the Unfortunate Dr. Kassler, J.S.P.S., by Jeremy Leven which sparked his curiosity for neuroscience and he discovers a calling to practice medicine. He later starts medical school at Yale.
“Don’t think I ever spent a minute of any day wondering why I did this work, or whether it was worth it. The call to protect life—and not merely life but another’s identity; it is perhaps not too much to say another’s soul—was obvious in its sacredness. Before operating on a patient’s brain, I realized, I must first understand his mind: his identity, his values, what makes his life worth living, and what devastation makes it reasonable to let that life end. The cost of my dedication to succeed was high, and the ineluctable failures brought me nearly unbearable guilt. Those burdens are what make medicine holy and wholly impossible: in taking up another’s cross, one must sometimes get crushed by the weight.”― When Breath Becomes Air
Being a doctor is a calling because it is toughest jobs out there. You spend most of your days living very close to death and making life and death decisions. Some of Kalanithi’s classmates quit because they could not take responsibility over other people’s lives or the responsiblity of the mistakes they had made. Or then the guilt became too much to live with for some. And brain surgery sounds like it is the most insane speciality there is. If you miss by few millimeters, your patient could be paralyzed forever. Kalanithi was descrbing a patient with problem that was causing difficulties in speech. If he missed, patient would lose the ability to speak. Another millimeter in wrong direction and patient would be able to speak but just gibberish. Another millmeter to another direction and he could lose the ability to understand others.
And then at the age of thirty-six, on the verge of completing a decade’s worth of training as a neurosurgeon, life sneaks upon him. Everything is okay and everything’s right and then everything blows up in his face. He gets cancer. Only 0.0012% of 36-year-olds get lung cancer. And isn’t it ironic, don’t you think.
“What makes life meaningful enough to go on living?”
The author knew he was dying and tried to come in terms. And it seems like an impossible task. As he says in the memoir: “Before my cancer was diagnosed, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. After the diagnosis, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when.” No one gives him a timeline. He could die within months, he could have a few good years or even a decade left. How do you go on with your life when you don’t know? He goes through five (or seven) stages of grief. But in a reverse order. He accepts his diagnosis and the fact that he will die because he is a doctor and he has hope to beat this illness. He goes through depression because what is the meaning of your life at this point. Through bargaining to anger and denial.
“even if I’m dying, until I actually die, I am still living.”
The reason I liked this book are all the thoughts Kalanithi has and how he describes his situation. He sees it from a medical point of view and perhaps the author has much better touch with death and his illness because he is a doctor and a surgeon. And at the same time, he is now experiencing the illness himself instead of just observing. He has awfully much more to lose too. Not just his career as a surgeon but a career that he had only recently found a calling for. His wife and a family that he was planning to start. Book describes how he thinks he has more time left than what he really does and how his diagnosis affects his marriage.Devastating, yet incredible read.
How-To Read When Breath Becomes Air
1. Life is unfair. Here is another book about it.
2. Heavy but not too long of a read with just over 200 pages. think it is worth mentioning that the author never finished this book which shows in some parts of the book and it also has a long introduction and epilogue.
3. I think this beautifully describes the mortality. I think in a way it is inspiring you to live your life fully but I would not recommend this if you are having health issues.
Have you read this? Thoughts?