When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

When Breath Becomes Air

One of my WOW reads of the year – and we’re not even half way through yet. When I heard Lucy Kalanithi talking about her amazing husband and this book on the radio, I knew I had to read it. Anyone who is worried that this is a depressing read – think again. Anyone who is thinking to themselves ‘I don’t like non-fiction’ – think again. Huge thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this incredible read.

So what’s it about?

At the age of thirty-six, on the verge of completing a decade’s training as a neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer. One day he was a doctor treating the dying, the next he was a patient struggling to live. 

When Breath Becomes Air chronicles Kalanithi’s transformation from a medical student asking what makes a virtuous and meaningful life into a neurosurgeon working in the core of human identity – the brain – and finally into a patient and a new father.

What makes life worth living in the face of death? What do you do when life is catastrophically interrupted? What does it mean to have a child as your own life fades away? 

Paul Kalanithi died while working on this profoundly moving book, yet his words live on as a guide to us all. When Breath Becomes Air is a life-affirming reflection on facing our mortality and on the relationship between doctor and patient, from a gifted writer who became both.

This is Paul Kalanithi’s examination of his own diagnosis and mortality both as a doctor and as a patient – the two differing perspectives raising many questions which Kalanithi tries to make sense of by writing about them. This is not a book of ‘answers’ but one which can’t fail to make you think, deeply.

Nor is it the story of a ‘normal’ man. Kalanithi was clearly extraordinary. Yes, as a medical practitioner but also as a writer, a thinker, a husband, a dad. His wasn’t a job. It was a calling and one that he saw as a great privilege: ‘I resolved to treat all my paperwork as patients and not vice versa’. I can only imagine what such a man could have achieved.

Interspersed amongst his own thoughts are stories of patients he has met and treated as well as anecdotes from other doctors. The story is above all a human one, laying bare the failures as well as the successes. Who knew that the difference between curing a patient and causing Locked-in Syndrome lies in about two millimetres of brain matter? Who isn’t wowed a little by the fact that the quoted doctor knows this because ‘the third time I did this operation, that’s exactly what happened.’

Fascinating, educational and heart-breaking in equal measure. This book will stay with me for a long time.

‘Before my cancer was diagnosed, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. After the diagnosis, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when’.