Posts Tagged ‘neurosurgeon’

When Breath Becomes Air / Paul Kalanithi

Paul Kalanithi is thirty-six years old and nearing the end of his training as a neurosurgeon when he receives devastating news. He is diagnosed as having stage IV lung cancer. Instantly, he goes from being a skilled surgeon with the prospect of a successful career to being a hapless patient, confronted with his own mortality.

In When Breath Becomes Air, Kalanithi addresses not only the effect the news had upon his life and career, he tackles a much larger question: what makes life worth living in the face of death. He does so with eloquence and important insights into what truly matters when time has become a limited resource. While this sounds grim, his story is one that focuses on hope and appreciation of the gifts life has presented him. Despite his serious illness, his wife and he decide to have the child they have long wanted.

The first half of the book deals with the reasons he chose to become a neurosurgeon and the satisfaction he found in helping others. But he also shows how his medical training has made him somewhat callous to the problems his patients face. When ill himself, he realizes that doctors often concentrate solely on the disease itself, rather than the emotional toll the diagnosis has caused. With his unique perspective as both a physician and a patient, he is able to show what takes place on both sides of the clinical interaction.

Paul Kalanithi died in March 2015 while still racing to complete this book. This was shortly after his wife gave birth to their daughter. The book’s epilogue, written by his wife Lucy, supplies an intimate account of his final days. There is no doubt that her husband had the talent to be an author who could well write numerous articles and books on the relationship between patients and physicians, as well as the meaning of life itself. Unfortunately, confronted with such a devastating diagnosis, this book at times felt rushed and incomplete to me. But then, one considers that time was not on his side and how ill he was while writing it. One has to appreciate what he does accomplish in this slim documentation of his battle against cancer, showing how he rose above the disease to live his remaining days with hope’s positivity.

Ultimately, it is a story that most readers will find both heartbreaking and inspirational. If nothing else, it is a book that should be assigned to every aspiring medical student. It serves as an important reminder against hubris, and the necessity of seeing the person behind the designation of patient. Paul Kalanithi may have died tragically young, but as his book shows, he lived a full life nonetheless. It represents a gift not only to his wife and daughter, but to every patient confronted with a life-threatening illness.

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