Book Review: When Breath Becomes Air
When Breath Becomes Air
By Paul Kalanithi
Written with eloquence, insight, and a healthy measure of humor, When Breath Becomes Air captures the thoughts and memories of neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi just before his death from lung cancer in March 2015. Having devoted his previous 10 years to the preservation of life, Kalanithi was in a unique position to reflect on mortality as he faced it himself at age 37.
Part I of the book chronicles the period of Kalanithi’s life prior to his 2013 diagnosis. Special emphasis is placed on his residency in neurological surgery at the Stanford University School of Medicine, where he grappled with the guilt of failure, the morally ambiguous aspects of his career, and the nonchalant attitude toward mortality that the profession can bring. Kalanithi frequently found himself acting not as death’s adversary, but as “death’s ambassador,” gently explaining to an ailing person’s loved ones that a merciful exit from this world may be the patient’s best option. In the process of becoming a neurosurgeon, he discovered the innate sanctity of his duty to protect an individual’s life and consciousness.
Part II of When Breath Becomes Air deals with the last stage of Kalanithi’s life: the response of his cancer to treatment, his completion of his residency, his choice to have a child with his wife, Lucy, and his final ruminations on existence. As his health declined, the author found himself returning to many of the core values of the Christianity on which he was raised. A late entry in the book finds him striving to reconcile those values with the scientific materialism that he later came to embrace. In conjunction with a heartfelt epilogue by his wife, Kalanithi’s beautiful closing message to his daughter, Cady (born in July 2014) brings a sense of closure to the story of a life that ended too soon.