When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

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I normally do not read much non-fiction, but I’m fortunate to have read and enjoyed this memoir from the late Dr. Paul Kalanithi. Paul’s writing is beautiful and his story is unforgettable. His passion for literature, neuroscience, the medical field, and living life fully shines through this memoir, written while he was terminally ill with lung cancer.

At the age of 36, as Paul was finishing with a decade of intense schooling and truly begin his career as a neurosurgeon, he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. After having been a doctor to so many patients with cancer, Paul found himself trying to serve in a dual role as both doctor and patient. His reflections of various operations and patients that stuck with him throughout the years in the operating room add an even greater richness to his memoir.

Paul was a man of many talents, extremely bright in the medical field, but also a very gifted writer, holding degrees in English literature and philosophy. He references many great authors, philosophers, poets, and even the Bible. Perhaps the most notable is that of Samuel Beckett, whose words, “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.” become Paul’s mantra as his remaining time diminishes.

As Paul comes to terms with the limited amount of life remaining for him, he attempts to find out what makes a life worth living. He comes to realize that the long-term goals he had set for his life are no longer attainable, and he must go on regardless. The last 8 months of Paul’s life were especially important to him, as he was able to spend valuable time with his newborn daughter. His descriptions of the time spent with her, as well as his wife Lucy, are both touching, and heartbreaking. Paul was a man capable of profound love, conviction, and dedication to his passions in life.

Both the introduction by Abraham Verghese and the epilogue written by Paul’s wife, Lucy, are heartfelt and beautiful. Knowing that Paul wrote such a moving story, while facing what he did, is truly humbling. One of my favorite reviews of this book was from author Ann Patchett, who wrote, “This is one of a handful of books I consider to be a universal donor—I would recommend it to anyone, everyone.” There you have it, folks, When Breath Becomes Air, is truly a book for everyone. Enjoy.