Book Review: When Breath Becomes Air

A memoir by neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi, who writes When Breath Becomes Air into three parts – before and after the diagnosis, and the wife, Lucy’s epilogue, for life after Kalanithi passes away in March 2015. Kalanithi vividly illustrates his upbringings as a young boy in New York then moving to Arizona and how his love of literature was instilled by his mother. This led him to study literature at Stanford University.

Unsatisfied by the answers found in literature, he wanted to view life from a medical standpoint and pursued his Masters in History and Philosophy of Science at Cambridge University before earning a spot at Yale Medical School. It was evident in the style of writing and capacity to learn that Kalanithi is ambitious and hard-working. This high achiever’s detailed accounts of his residency in neuroscience further highlights the mentally and physically demanding aspects of his education.

At one point during his operations, he walked out to eat a cookie cream sandwich only to receive life-changing news from his patient’s relatives.

I was making more moral slides than strides.

Paul Kalanithi

The second part reveals his life after the stage IV metastatic lung cancer diagnosis. Kalanithi‘s life is flipped from being a doctor to now a patient and his bewildering experiences when a junior Doctor does not follow his orders. The challenges of missing professional opportunities, missing his graduation and other life-threatening obstacles along the way makes this memoir so meaningful.

The detailed accounts of his life and career are essential for any young healthcare professional aspirant. For those looking for a little inspiration, the race against time and wild twists will leave your heart in awe. But more importantly, help you realize the necessary truth to truly live your own life. I highly recommend this read.

Science may provide the most useful way to organize empirical, reproducible data, but its power to do so is predicated on its inability to grasp the most central aspects of human life: hope, fear, love, hate, beauty, envy, honor, weakness, striving, suffering, virtue.

Paul Kalanithi

I applaud Paul for completing his memoir as he races against time; Lucy and the members of their family for ensuring the publication of this must-read book; and I wish their daughter, Elizabeth Arcadia, all the best. It is a life-changing and eye-opening story you will never forget.

Check out one of Paul Kalanithi’s essays in the New Yorker, or my book review on Goodreads.