All lives have equal value. But some deaths seem particularly cruel.
When Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2013, he was a 36-year-old on the verge of making big contributions to the world with his mind and hands. He was a gifted doctor—a chief resident in neurosurgery at Stanford just months away from completing the most grueling training of any clinical field. He was also a brilliant scientist. His postdoctoral research on gene therapy won him his field’s highest research award.
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As if that wasn’t enough, he was also a great writer. Before attending medical school, he earned two degrees in English literature from Stanford and gave serious consideration to pursuing writing as a full-time career.
What a talent. What a loss.
I know about Kalanithi’s story because he told it himself in the posthumous When Breath Becomes Air. It’s an amazing book. I was super touched by it, as was Melinda and our daughter Jennifer. In fact, I can say this is the best nonfiction story I’ve read in a long time.
Thanks to this book, the reader gets to know well and like Kalanithi a lot. He brings you not just into his journey as a doctor and then as a patient but also into his role as a husband, which was sorely strained at times by the rigors of his and his wife’s clinical residencies. My emotional investment got particularly strong after Kalanithi and his wife, Lucy, decide to have a child despite (or maybe even because of) Kalanithi’s diagnosis. Kalanithi was there for the delivery, but he was so weak and chilled from chemotherapy that he wasn’t able to put his newborn daughter against his skin. Eight months later, Kalanithi died a few hundred yards away from where his daughter entered the world.
Read the full article here by Gates Notes
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air – Book Review
#1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • For readers of Atul Gawande, Andrew Solomon, and Anne Lamott, this inspiring, exquisitely observed memoir finds hope and beauty in the face of insurmountable odds as an idealistic young neurosurgeon attempts to answer the question What makes a life worth living?
NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY THE WASHINGTON POST • THE NEW YORK TIMES • NPR
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At the age of thirty-six, on the verge of completing a decade’s worth of training as a neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. One day he was a doctor treating the dying, and the next he was a patient struggling to live. And just like that, the future he and his wife had imagined evaporated. When Breath Becomes Air chronicles Kalanithi’s transformation from a naïve medical student “possessed,” as he wrote, “by the question of what, given that all organisms die, makes a virtuous and meaningful life” into a neurosurgeon at Stanford working in the brain, the most critical place for human identity, and finally into a patient and new father confronting his own mortality.
What makes life worth living in the face of death? What do you do when the future, no longer a ladder toward your goals in life, flattens out into a perpetual present? What does it mean to have a child, to nurture a new life as another fades away? These are some of the questions Kalanithi wrestles with in this profoundly moving, exquisitely observed memoir.
Paul Kalanithi died in March 2015, while working on this book, yet his words live on as a guide and a gift to us all. “I began to realize that coming face to face with my own mortality, in a sense, had changed nothing and everything,” he wrote. “Seven words from Samuel Beckett began to repeat in my head: ‘I can’t go on. I’ll go on.’” When Breath Becomes Air is an unforgettable, life-affirming reflection on the challenge of facing death and on the relationship between doctor and patient, from a brilliant writer who became both.
Praise for When Breath Becomes Air
“I guarantee that finishing this book and then forgetting about it is simply not an option. . . . Part of this book’s tremendous impact comes from the obvious fact that its author was such a brilliant polymath. And part comes from the way he conveys what happened to him—passionately working and striving, deferring gratification, waiting to live, learning to die—so well.” — Janet Maslin, The New York Times
“An emotional investment well worth making: a moving and thoughtful memoir of family, medicine and literature. It is, despite its grim undertone, accidentally inspiring.” — The Washington Post
“Possesses the gravity and wisdom of an ancient Greek tragedy . . . [Kalanithi] delivers his chronicle in austere, beautiful prose. The book brims with insightful reflections on mortality that are especially poignant coming from a trained physician familiar with what lies ahead.” — The Boston Globe
“Devastating and spectacular . . . [Kalanithi] is so likeable, so relatable, and so humble, that you become immersed in his world and forget where it’s all heading.”—USA Today
“It’s [Kalanithi’s] unsentimental approach that makes When Breath Becomes Air so original—and so devastating. . . . Its only fault is that the book, like his life, ends much too early.” — Entertainment Weekly
“Split my head open with its beauty.” — Cheryl Strayed