“When there’s no place for a scalpel, words are the surgeon’s only tool.” – Paul Kalanithi
At age 36, in the last year of his neurosurgery residency, Paul Kalanithi discovered he had stage IV lung cancer. For the next 22 months, he and his wife Lucy, an internal medicine physician, awoke each day focused on living, not “living until…” “When Breath Becomes Air” was written largely because Dr. Kalanithi had the soul of a poet and turning to words to express any experience in life was as instinctive to him as breathing itself. His intent was that his story could aid in the healing of others, and that one day his own daughter would read it and get a sense of the father she would never remember.
The book’s format, like the author’s writing style, is simple, straightforward, eloquent, and unflinchingly honest – Prologue, Part I and Part II. In the prologue, Paul describes the first step in his diagnosis, getting x-rays for his recurring severe chest pain. It was 15 months prior to the end of his residency. He could see the light at the end of the long 10-year tunnel of preparation for his work in neurosurgery. There would be wonderful opportunities to practice, as well as conduct research, offer of a professorship, a huge increase in income, a new home and starting a family with Lucy. The x-rays were fine, he was told. But he had lost weight and the pain was not letting up in severity. He began researching incidence of cancer in his age group. Things with Lucy were strained at that time, partly because he was not sharing his concerns about his condition. She decided against going with him on a vacation with old friends in order to sort out her own feelings about their relationship. He came home in severe pain after just a couple of days. She picked him up from the airport. After he told her about his symptoms and his self-diagnosis, she took him to the hospital that night, where a neurosurgeon friend admitted him.
Most of Part I, In Perfect Health I Begin, describes life prior to the diagnosis, obviously back to his childhood. Both of his parents were immigrants from India, his father a Christian, and his mother Hindu. Both families disowned them for many years. They moved their own family of three sons from Bronxville, New York to Kingman so Paul’s father could establish a cardiology practice, which he did very successfully. Paul’s mother had been trained as a physiologist in India before eloping with Paul’s father when she was 23. Her own father had defied the traditions of 1960s rural India and insisted that his daughter be educated and trained for a profession. She was horrified to discover that Kingman’s school district was among the lowest performing in the entire country. Her eldest son had been educated in Westchester County, New York schools, where graduates were assured of admission to the nation’s most prestigious universities. He had been accepted at Stanford before the move to Kingman. What would happen to ten-year-old Paul and his six-year-old brother Jeevan? Instead of wringing her hands, Mrs. Kalanithi threw herself into supplementing her sons’ educations and improving that of all the children in the area. She gave Paul a reading list intended for college prep students and at age ten he read 1984, followed by many other modern and traditional classics. He discovered a love for words as an expression of the human spirit. His mom got elected to the school board and worked with teachers and others to transform the school district. After a few years their 30+% dropout rate was greatly reduced and graduates were getting accepted at universities of their choice.
No doubt Paul was born with that poetic soul, but it was his mother’s guidance that led him to read the literary giants who nourished that soul. It was his parents’ examples of excellence in their own lives, their faith, and service to their community, in this strange land that they made their own, that formed Paul’s desire and need to serve.
In “When Breath Becomes Air,” he writes of vocation, a term you rarely hear people use these days. A thousand years ago when I was growing up, vocation was ubiquitous. We were told time and again that discerning our vocation was one of our prime responsibilities as human beings. It was our reason for being here, what we were called to do in service to humankind. Teaching, medicine, religious ministry, musicianship, military, etc. By knowing our natural talents we could know our vocation.
Paul had many talents and interests, complicating his vocation decision. He studied both English literature and human biology in college. “I still felt literature provided the best account of the life of the mind, while neuroscience laid down the most elegant rules of the brain.” Also a man of deep spirituality, Paul reflected, “Literature not only illuminated another’s experience, it provided, I believed, the richest material for moral reflection. My brief forays into the formal ethics of analytic philosophy felt dry as a bone, missing the messiness and weight of real human life.” The intersection of science and morality was of prime interest to Paul.
The rest of Part I describes how Paul came to see medicine, and then neurosurgery, as his vocation. He forthrightly deals with the idealism of medical students and residents and how that idealism is dimmed or completely snuffed out by the realities of giving medical care to other human beings. His explanation of cadaver dissection and why physicians and their families do not donate their own bodies to medical science is eye opening. “Cadaver dissection epitomizes, for many, the transformation of the somber, respectful student into the callous, arrogant doctor.” This is the kind of honesty displayed throughout the entire book. He writes of his own loss of idealism and how the recognition of that affected his own self-image, as well as his job performance. “I wondered if, in my brief time as a physician, I had made more moral slides than strides.”
That earlier mentioned phrase, “the messiness and weight of real human life,” describes this book. The author has given the world not a mere recollection of events or achievements, but has laid bare his soul, exposing the very marrow of his being. This book should be read by every premed student in the world before they commit to a decade or more of study and relentless hard work.
In Part II , Cease Not till Death, the author details the diagnosis, the immediate aftermath, the determination to emphasize living not dying, the quest to conceive a child, and the agony involved in treatment. I think Part II should be experienced by each reader. Most readers will find it extremely compelling and very personal. It is the nitty gritty of this man’s inner being. Lucy, his wife, wrote an eloquent epilogue further detailing Paul’s experience while writing this book, the support they received from colleagues, friends, family, and others after his death on March 9, 2015.
I found this book soul wrenching, but also witty, uplifting and hopeful. Without preaching, he reveals some deep flaws in the way we do health care and the price that not just patients but the care providers sometimes pay. In our war with cancer, it won a battle here by taking this remarkable man so early. He would have touched hundreds of students and thousands of patients with the professorship that would have been his. But “When Breath Becomes Air” is sure to touch millions of us. Cady Kalanithi will one day be able to read for herself just who her father really was.
Maggie Gust has been an avid reader all her life. Her past includes working as a teacher, as well as various occupations in the healthcare field. She shares a hometown, Springfield, Illinois, with Abraham Lincoln, but Florida has been her home since 1993. Genealogy, reading, movies and writing are among her favorite activities. She is self-employed and works from her Naples home. Contact her at email@example.com or maggiesbookinblog.com.