Saturday, February 6, 2016

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

"There we were, doctor and patient, in a relationship that sometimes carries a magisterial air 
and other times, like now, was no more, and no less, than two people huddled together, as one faces the abyss.  

Doctors, it turns out, need hope, too."

When Breath Becomes Air is the profound memoir of Paul Kalanithi, a young neurosurgeon who is diagnosed with terminal cancer.  Paul has based his life and his career as a neurosurgeon on being present with patients and their families as they are diagnosed with the unthinkable and guiding them on the path they find themselves on following.  In When Breath Becomes Air, we see the transformation that occurs as Paul is diagnosed with cancer and creates his own path as the life he has planned for disappears from reach.
The first half of the memoir focuses on his time as a young man choosing his path in life.  We learn early on that he has a love of literature.  As a student at Stanford, Paul Kalanithi wrote his thesis on Walt Whitman.  Whitman, like Paul was interested in understanding "the physiological-spiritual man."  The answers he finds in literature are not enough.  He needs more.  It is then that he sits down with an advisor and finds his true passion.  He decides to pursue medicine, specifically neurosurgery.  He is engaged and fascinated by the brain and again the question he originally sought in literature surfaces, "what makes life meaningful, even in the face of death and decay?"  It is evident immediately that Paul has a true calling, his heart and soul are invested in perfecting his craft.  

And then life halts.  At the healm of his career, Paul is diagnosed with cancer.  His wife, family and doctor serve as rock solid support as he navigates a life that swiftly changes direction.  Paul describes the process of transforming from doctor to patient.  Through Paul's own experience facing death and those of the stories he tells of patients, we see a man who is not afraid of living nor of the inevitable, death.
As doctor and patient, Paul saw cancer from every perspective.  Never have I experienced writing in which the narrator so eloquently writes about facing death as life swirls around him and does so with such vigor for living.

This one is a must read.  Paul's perseverance in the midst of everything is inspiring.


  1. Wow. This does sound good. I want to read more non-fiction this year and this book is definitely going on my list. Thanks! :)

  2. I've heard so many great things about this book and from what you've written sounds like they were spot on. I'm definitely looking forward to reading this one. So glad you posted about it :)