When Breath Becomes Air

Posted June 29, 2018 in What We're Reading

Written by: Paul Kalanithi

Reviewed by: Shelby Gobbo

The Premise: Dr. Paul Kalanithi, a brilliant neurosurgeon, finds out he is terminally ill with an aggressive lung cancer. Only in his thirties, and with much of his life left to live, Kalanithi takes you through his journey pre and post-diagnosis. Commencing as a medical student, Kalanithi recalls specific moments of his residence career that taught him what it really meant to be a doctor – what it meant to be human, and as Kalanithi said “[as] a resident, my highest ideal was not saving lives – everyone dies eventually – but guiding a patient or family to an understanding of death or illness. When Breath Becomes Air is without a doubt one of the best books I have ever picked up. Not only is the story beautiful, but the lessons and insights woven throughout the book are ones that connect the scientific world with the spiritual world and really make you think about what you are doing with your time here on earth.

The diagnosis of stage IV lung cancer completely changed Kalanithi’s life. Kalanithi notes at the beginning of the book that he had always wanted to be a writer but chose medicine instead. After he was diagnosed, he realized that he had not written anything yet and so he begins to chronicle his life from his time as a medical student to the days before he dies. Deciding to have a child with his wife in the midst of his treatment was a difficult decision as he wonders if having a child will make it harder for him to ‘go.’ This is only one of the many thought-provoking themes throughout the story, and certainly not the most heart-wrenching. For me, the best part of the book was the relationship between the philosophy of life and the life of medicine paralleled with his physical experiences as both a doctor and as a patient. The parallels he draws and messages he leaves are so deep and insightful and will leave you both at peace and at unease. This book really forces you to search inside yourself and reflect on your resiliency and emotional intelligence. My favourite quote from the book comes towards the end, “I began to realize that coming face to face with my own mortality, in a sense had changed nothing and everything.” He realized, that the world around him had not changed, but his world was forever changed.

The Bottom-line: Although Kalanithi died in March 2015 while working on When Breath Become Air, his words and messages will live on forever. I received this book as a gift and have been lucky enough to experience the prose that Kalanithi uses to take you through his journey. This book really is unforgettable and is truly a gift in its own sense. Pick up the anniversary addition and enjoy a beautiful afterward by Kalanithi’s wife that shows a view from the sidelines and the resiliency Kalanithi had to complete this book despite the trials he was facing.

Recommendation:  If you are looking for a book to change your perspective on life – then this is the book to read. This short memoir is guaranteed to wet your eyes and leave your Kleenex box empty.

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