When Breath Becomes Air – Paul Kalanithi

This biography follows the life of Dr. Paul Kalanithi, an accomplished neurosurgeon, whose career and life is suddenly cut short when he is diagnosed with lung cancer.

The first half of this book follows Dr. Kalanithi’s journey to becoming a neurosurgeon where he shares stories about med school, his residencies, and his interactions with patients.  He tells stories of medical successes, medical failures, and the strength of the human spirit.  What I admired most was Dr. Kalanithi’s sense of purpose when it came to making a conscious effort to put himself in his patient’s or the family’s shoes.  In a field where disassociating yourself from emotion might make the daunting job of saving lives a bit easier, Dr. Kalanithi took a different approach and recognized that treating patients with respect and truly like a patient was the difference between a doctor who cared and one who was just looking to try and fix a problem.

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

Zi’s Reads: When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

There was a part in the first half of the book with Dr. Kalanithi explained so eloquently how important a doctor’s role is to guide the patient and their families to an understanding of death, illness, and the difference between the two.  He states that in the face of a medical adversity, families see an ill person as a member of their family and all the associated memories that that person has built or been a part of.  The doctor, on the other hand, sees the possible outcomes, breathing machines, medications, and the overall quality of life post-surgery.  Both are valuable views and both ultimately want to ward off death, however, there comes a time where doctors become advocates for death after considering the bleak outlook of the quality of ones life post-surgery.  One side has the knowledge of how that person might have wished to live, whereas the other does not but has the knowledge of what happens after a life is saved.  Do we become selfish in wanting to keep the person alive, or do we understand that the quality of life is not what the person would have wished to live through?  It’s a tough decision on either side of the coin – but a tough decision that hit a lot closer to home when Dr. Kalanithi found himself on the flip side and transitioned from doctor to patient.

The second half of the book follows Dr. Kalanithi’s journey through dealing with the diagnosis of having lung cancer.  This part of the book explored how Dr. Kalanithi automatically launched into being a doctor to himself – wanting to know things like statistics around his survival rate, treatment options and their side effects, etc.  There was an interesting part in the second half of the book where his treating physician told him that she was fine with him playing the role of doctor but that if at any point he wanted her to take the driver’s seat and simply be a patient, she’d be ok with that as well.  I thought that was particularly thoughtful and beautifully recognized the turmoil that Dr. Kalanithi might have been going through as he navigated the doctor/patient role.

I’ve been reading a lot of books about the human spirit lately.  While it’s inspiring, it’s also a bit mentally draining so I’m looking forward to enjoying something lighter really soon!  I thought this book was so well written and even though I have no sense of the science behind being a doctor, Dr. Kalanithi made things so easy to understand and follow.  Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to finish his book and his wife took over the last part of the book for him.  This was a heart-wrenching read and highly recommend it to anyone!


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