Friday, February 26, 2016

When Breath Becomes Air

Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air is part autobiography and part memoir, but most of all it is a talented doctor’s farewell to a world that is surely less than it would have been were he still a part of it.  I should note, too, that the last part of the book is his wife’s memoir because, after Kalanithi’s surprisingly quick death, she wrote the book’s final pages.

By the time Paul Kalanithi began his medical studies, he had already earned advanced degrees in literature and philosophy.  Still, he was only 37 years old and on the verge of what promised to be a brilliant medical career when he died of the lung cancer that had been discovered just twenty-two months earlier.   Looking back to the precise moment a nurse “poked her head” into his hospital room to tell him that the doctor would be in to see him soon, Kalanithi marked the beginning of his end with these words, “And with that, the future I had imagined, the one about to be realized, the culmination of decades of striving, evaporated.”

Stunned by the realization that his life would be nothing like he had imagined it would be, Kalanithi had to decide what to do with the time he had left, however long that might be.  He realized that his life expectancy was now probably more accurately gauged in months rather than in years, but before he could make lifestyle decisions he had to adapt to the unfamiliar role of patient.  That Kalanithi was a doctor was both a blessing and a curse.  On the one hand, he probably knew as much about the nature of his cancer as the doctors treating him, so was able to offer treatment suggestions of his own.  On the other, his clear understanding of the odds against him perhaps made it more difficult for him to deal with the fear, depression, and anger in part created by that knowledge.

Doctor and Author Paul Kalanithi
Whatever he was, Paul Kalanithi was no quitter.  Neurosurgery was part of his self-identity, and with a little help from his colleagues, he was able to return to the operating room for several more months, months during which he became better and better at what he did.  He was also able to witness the birth of his only child, a little girl who taught him how to love in a whole new way.  Dr. Kalanithi, knowing that his life would be a short one, decided not to waste a moment of it – and that is his lesson for the rest of us, for all of life is shorter than we imagine it to be while in the process of living it. 

Just twenty-two months after learning of his illness, Paul Kalanithi’s journey was over, a journey described by his wife as “one of transformation – from one passionate vocation to another, from husband to father, and finally, of course, from life to death, the ultimate transformation that awaits us all.”

Paul Kalanithi’s was a life well lived.

Review Copy provided by publisher


  1. Such a beautiful book and I read it two days after my loved father died of renal cancer. But he was 74 and had lived a full life and see his children grow up and his grand children grow to be young adults.

    Julie Q

    1. Julie, it was a heartbreaking book for sure, but an inspirational one with a great message for all of us. He was a huge loss to his profession.