When Breath Becomes Air is a memoir by Paul Kalanithi who, as an undergraduate with a deep love of both science and literature, sets out to find the “intersection between the mind and the brain,” and who, after becoming a neurosurgeon with only one year of residency left, is diagnosed with terminal cancer.
Yes, like many other bestsellers of late like Sherwin B. Nuland’s How We Die, and Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal, When Breath Becomes Air is a book about dying. But unlike other books about dying, this one is so lyrical and so unforgettable it is as if, like author-physician Abraham Verghese writes in his Foreward, “Out of his pen he was spinning gold.”
But don’t take my word for it. Or Verghese’s either. Not when you can take it from the doctor himself who, about the morning of his diagnosis, writes:
“I received the plastic arm bracelet all patients wear, put on the familiar light blue hospital gown, walked past the nurses I knew by name, and was checked in to a room – the same room where I had seen hundreds of patients over the years. In this room, I had sat with patients and explained terminal diagnoses and complex operations; in this room, I had congratulated patients on being cured of a disease and seen their happiness at being returned to their lives; in this room, I had pronounced patients dead…I had even, in moments of utter exhaustion, longed to lie down in this bed and sleep. Now I lay there, wide awake.”
Then upon hearing the words, “The doctor will be in soon,” he writes: “And with that, the future I had imagined, the one just about to be realized, the culmination of decades of striving, evaporated.”
“In the context of Paul’s diagnosis,” Verghese wrote, “I became aware of not just his mortality but my own.”
But if you, as reader, find any of this amazing, it is what Dr. Kalanithi does after his diagnosis (while trying to find "the intersection between hope and acceptance") that will truly amaze you.
In When Breath Becomes Air, Dr. Kalanithi will take you with him as he moves toward death with integrity, vulnerability and courage.
I loved this book. It strengthened my soul and helped me answer the question we must all ask in the face of death: What is it that makes life meaningful?