When Breath Becomes Air

Title: When Breath Becomes Air
Writers : Paul Kalanithi
Published: 2016
Genre: Non-Fiction
My Rating: 4 on 5

When Breath Becomes Air is a memoir of Paul Kalanithi, who was a neurosurgeon and who passed away at a very young age due to lung cancer. This book is a record of his short but fruitful life and his brave journey of staring death in its face until he finally embraced it. Kalanithi was an English Major with his goal set on getting into literature and becoming a writer. He was interested in knowing what makes humans think, where do brain and mind connect and during the course of his life, changes his direction from writing to become a neurosurgeon.

Kalanithi ponders about this role as a surgeon when he has to make decisions which could cost or save a life. He also wonders how surgeons are bearers of bad news – patients are informed about their terminal illness and relatives are informed about the death of their loved ones. He sees the mysterious working of human brain when he meets patients who speak only in numbers or who appear to be in another world altogether.

When Kalanithi is in his final year of residency with dreams in his eyes of making it big in the medical world, life gives him a wake-up call as cancer comes knocking on his door. Even as a doctor, he can’t help but live in denial that it is not cancer but some stray pain in the body. When the news is confirmed, Kalanithi is devastated and so is his wife, but as doctors, they immediately kick into a action mode. They consult the best oncologist and thus begins Kalanithi’s treatment.

Death may be a one time event, but living with terminal illness is a process.

This book has no spoilers – we all know Kalanithi dies. The journey from turning from a neurosurgeon into a cancer patient and the moral questions that he asks and answers on the way is the meat of this book. During his first visit to this oncologist, all he wants to know is how much time does he have to live. His doctor refuses to answer that and instead veers him to look at his values and live by them. Kalanithi has plans in life.

The way forward would seem obvious, if only I knew how many months or years I had left. Tell me three months, I’d spend time with family. Tell me one year, I’d write a book. Give me ten years, I’d get back to treating diseases. The truth that you live one day at a time didn’t help: what was I supposed to do with that day?

There is no self pity or melodrama in Kalanithi’s voice. It comes straight from the heart and touches yours. The afterword by Kalanithi’s wife is heart breaking. I cried and sobbed while reading her chapter.

Does this book answer questions on morality? Not really. But Kalanithi does show us how to live life fully, no matter how short it is. He also shows how to die – staring death right into its face and embracing it with a smile.

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