Published by Random House
Publication date: January 12th 2016
Science may provide the most useful way to organize empirical, reproducible data, but its power to do so is predicated on its inability to grasp the most central aspects of human life: hope, fear, love, hate, beauty, envy, honor, weakness, striving suffering, virtue.
Paul Kalanithi knew he would split his life in two—the first half would be devoted to his passion for medicine and the brain and the second half to his love of words and writing. Sadly, at age 36, just as he is finishing his residency and preparing to reap the rewards of onerous years of training and debt, he is diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. The first half of his life becomes the last and When Breath Becomes Air is that life, as he transitions from doctor to patient and from life to death.
It occurred to me that my relationship with statistics changed as soon as I became one.
It’s hard to imagine going from being the person with all the answers to the one with only questions. Kalanithi struggles with letting his oncologist take the lead and with the decisions that need to be made. Do he and his wife go ahead and try to have a child? Does he give up surgery immediately or try and keep working? Each of these questions, even though they are unique to his situation, easily evoke feelings of helplessness and fear in anyone. Early on, as a treatment plan is being formulated, he is reminded of what he felt was most important for his patients
Because the brain mediates our experience of the world, any neurosurgical problem forces a patient and family, ideally with a doctor as a guide, to answer this question: What makes life meaningful enough to go on living?
There are no spoilers in When Breath Becomes Air. Kalanithi died before completing the book. What there are, though, are reflections on life, and while the death of someone before their time, while they are still fully invested in life, is tragic, the book is not. It is sad, contemplative, and filled with beautiful prose. Kalanithi may have gone on to make valuable contributions with his surgical ability to save lives, but after reading When Breath Becomes Air it is clear that he would have been just as skilled as a writer. The book is small, but his turns of phrase, the graceful elegance with which he expresses himself, are expansive and deeply touching.