Saturday, July 22, 2017

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi - A Scrub Notes Book Review

"When Breath Becomes Air" is a memoir written by neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi. The book is a poignant look at the human spirit in both the pursuit of excellence as well as in coming to terms with its own impermanence.

Kalanithi was a Stanford neurosurgery resident when he found himself becoming fatigued, with worsening pain and decreasing weight. A routine chest x-ray discovered multiple lung masses, which were soon proven to be metastatic lung cancer. The book was borne of Kalanithi's other passion, literature, as well as his unfortunately unique perspective as both a healer and now a patient at a time when he was poised to be at the peak of his talents.

The first half of the book details Kalanithi's upbringing and path into medicine. His first love was literature, which he pursued all the way to a master's degree. However, upon further reflection, he felt a desire to pursue medicine after grappling with the question of the intersection of "biology, morality, literature, and philosophy." Since he had initially pursued literature, Kalanithi took two more years to complete the pre-med requirements and then apply to medical school. Accepted at Stanford, he was a fast rising star in the neurosurgery world, despite grueling 100 hour weeks year after year.

The diagnosis, coming near the end of his training, shatters Paul's identity. After striving for close to a decade to become an attending neurosurgeon, his diagnosis is his undoing. He rapidly transitions from physician to patient, and has to learn to let go, to trust in others to have his best interests at heart. The book shows how he meditates that cancer in particular is pernicious in that it makes one mortality both immediate and yet still remote: no longer a hypothetical, but not an immediate reality. Everyone has an answer to what one would do with their last day, but what about one's last decade?

Kalanithi then details the long road back to completing his training, the successes and failures of his treatment, and how he learned to live and ultimately succumb to his fate on his own terms. He died in 2015, leaving behind his wife Lucy and their newborn daughter.

For me, the last part of the book was the most moving, an epilogue written by Lucy about Paul's last days. She charts the uncertainty of his final hours and how he was resilient even while facing the unknown. His final wish was that they see the book to fruition, in which they clearly succeeded.

The book reads like what one would expect of a memoir of a first-time author, but Kalanithi's first rate intellect shines throughout. Even though he never uses the label, it is clear that Kalanithi was a humanist at heart. He does touch upon his wavering relationship with religion. For a reader who questions both their path in healthcare or wants a glimpse of how even the best laid paths can abound with uncertainty, "When Breath Becomes Air" will not disappoint.

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