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Book Review: When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

When Breath Becomes Air

I mentioned I read this book in my Friday Favorites.


When Breath Becomes Air is a memoir of Paul, a neurosurgeon at Stanford. He was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer at age 36 and wrote an op-ed in the New York Times called How Long Do I Have Left? that went viral. I heard about both the article and the book from his sister-in-law, Joanna Godard, the blogger behind Cup of Jo, who mentioned them both as they were published.

Learning about this man’s fascination with mortality and the human brain, both as a doctor and a patient changed my perspective on death. His childhood was filled with books. He read “1984” when he was 11 years old because his mother wanted him to go to an Ivy League school. He went to Standford and received his BA in Biology and English. Not knowing until after receiving his Masters that he wanted to become a doctor; like his father. As fate would have it, he met his wife at Yale while they were both pursing their medical degree.

With every page, I continued to feel connected with his thought process and his love for people. His empathy, compassion and humor helped him succeed as a Neurosurgeon. It appeared he shared these character traits from his father. One anecdote pertaining to his father’s bed side humor after performing open heart surgery. His father teased his patient that he ordered her Surf and Turf. He said, “don’t be surprised if it looks like a turkey sandwich.” Paul knew that it took a certain type to be a doctor. Never did he realize, he would be on the opposite end of that equation so soon. His wife, helped him cope and live with the cancer. They also had a daughter during that time which he dedicates the book to her. There really should be more about her too in this review, because you know he was a terrific father.

This book will be sure to break your heart, but it also has moments that make you laugh. “My mother worried about her sons and drugs, “never suspecting that the most intoxicating thing I’d experienced, by far, was the volume of romantic poetry she’d handed me the previous week.”” His accounts of working in Labor and Delivery, “It’s no Ann Geddes Painting!” These anecdotes all shape the person he was besides doctor and patient.

To paraphrase Abraham Verghese’s introduction, to read this book is to feel that Dr. Kalanithi still lives, with enormous power to influence the lives of others even though he is gone. He teaches one to die with grace. His sister in law said that she never knew what he was feeling, but that this story opened a window to his life during that time. Maybe that feels comforting or not, but either way, you can not unread this story.


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