When Breath Becomes Air

When Breath Becomes Air

by Paul Kalanithi

Overview: At the age of thirty-six, on the verge of completing a decade’s worth of training as a neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. One day he was a doctor treating the dying, and the next he was a patient struggling to live. And just like that, the future he and his wife had imagined evaporated. When Breath Becomes Air chronicles Kalanithi’s transformation from a naďve medical student “possessed,” as he wrote, “by the question of what, given that all organisms die, makes a virtuous and meaningful life” into a neurosurgeon at Stanford working in the brain, the most critical place for human identity, and finally into a patient and new father confronting his own mortality.

What makes life worth living in the face of death? What do you do when the future, no longer a ladder toward your goals in life, flattens out into a perpetual present? What does it mean to have a child, to nurture a new life as another fades away? These are some of the questions Kalanithi wrestles with in this profoundly moving, exquisitely observed memoir.

Paul Kalanithi died in March 2015, while working on this book, yet his words live on as a guide and a gift to us all. “I began to realize that coming face to face with my own mortality, in a sense, had changed nothing and everything,” he wrote. “Seven words from Samuel Beckett began to repeat in my head: ‘I can’t go on. I’ll go on.’” When Breath Becomes Air is an unforgettable, life-affirming reflection on the challenge of facing death and on the relationship between doctor and patient, from a brilliant writer who became both.

Judy Stanton (11/25/17): We are all going to die, and how we face that time at the end of life is really unpredictable. Paul Kalanithi died as he lived, facing it, reading about it, thinking about it, actively participating in it, and making concrete decisions along the way. In fact, this book was part of the process for this brilliant neurosurgeon-not-to-be. It is heartbreakingly sad to see such an intelligent, skilled, warm human being face death at a time when he had what seemed to be a most promising career ahead of him, one in which he would have touched so many people's lives. Life/Death IS unfair. Even though you know how it will end and you know it is incredibly sad, reading this book reminds you how lucky you are to be among the living, and not to squander the time you are given to be among the ones you love.
Rating: *****

Gail Reid (04/11/16): “When Breath Becomes Air” is the account of Dr. Paul Kalanithi, a 37-year-old neurosurgeon who is diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer during his final year of residency. Not only is Dr. Kalanithi a brilliant doctor and neuroscientist but a man with a love of reading and literature. Writing this book and caring for his newborn daughter were his passions during his last year of life while he battled countless treatments and struggled to complete his medical requirements.

It is difficult when you don't care for a book that has garnered thousands of 5-star reviews and a number one placement on the New York Times Bestseller List. I have enormous respect and admiration for Paul. Who wouldn't want to know a young doctor in today's times who believed that medicine was a calling - not just a job? But the book did not flow well for me and went back and forth in a choppy way between his medical and neurosurgery residency and his cancer treatment. Because he was so brilliant, there are many literary references and illusions but they felt too erudite to me. My favorite part of the book was the epilogue written by his wife Lucy, also a physician, whose writing is so clear and heartfelt that it simply resonated more with me. ***+
Rating: ***+

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