Book Review: When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

By Georgia Edwards | Contributor

whenbreathbecomesair1-680x796Cancer took Paul Kanalithi’s life at age 37 but not before the neurosurgeon was able to write most of his memoir, When Breath Becomes Air. His story begins with a foreword by Abraham Verghese, author (Cutting for Stone) and physician, who urges us to “see what courage sounds like” by reading about this extraordinary man’s life, death and legacy.

As a child, Kalanithi was introduced to authors like Sartre, Twain and Thoreau. Books, he said, “… became my closest confidants, finely ground lenses providing new views of the world.” His master’s thesis in literature at Stanford University was titled “Whitman and the Medicalization of Personality.” He could not see himself confined to an English department and went on to graduate cum laude from the Yale University School of Medicine and return to Stanford to eventually become chief resident of neurosurgery. Kalanithi found the best of both worlds in combining his love of language and medicine—“… literature provided the best account of the life of the mind, while neuroscience laid down the most elegant rules of the brain.”

In 2013, during his final year of residency, Kalanithi developed severe back pain and fatigue. A CT scan revealed multiple tumors throughout his lungs. After receiving the news that he had stage IV lung cancer, he wrote, “The root of disaster means a star coming apart, and no image expresses better the look in a patient’s eyes when hearing a neurosurgeon’s diagnosis.” Kalanithi found himself in the position of that patient, struggling with the dissolution of his future while gaining new insight. “It occurred to me that my relationship with statistics changed as soon as I became one.”

Chemotherapy afforded him a period of remission, and during that time, Kalanithi continued to practice medicine and write. His dual passion for words and medicine enabled him to interweave both into his memoir. He takes us from his childhood in Arizona to his unconventional path to Yale, where he would meet his wife, Lucy. We learn of his patients and follow his case studies. With poignant recall, he describes the birth of his daughter, Cady, in 2014. His kind, philosophical and introspective character is evident throughout.

Paul Kalanithi’s remission and life ended too soon. He died on March 9, 2015. In a moving epilogue, Lucy Kalanithi finished her husband’s story. It reads, in part: “Paul’s decision not to avert his eyes from death epitomizes a fortitude we don’t celebrate enough in our death-avoidant society. His strength was defined by ambition and effort, but also by softness, the opposite of bitterness… Writing this book was a chance for this courageous seer to be a sayer, to teach us to face death with integrity.”

When Breath Becomes Air is a beautiful work of prose in which a young man, faced with his mortality, reflects, teaches and inspires. Author Ann Patchett aptly summarized the importance of Kalanithi’s story by stating, “This is one of a handful of books I consider to be a universal donor—I would recommend it to anyone, everyone.”