When Breath Becomes Air- review of the memoir

Dr. Kalanithi faced his diagnosis with the same resolve, fortitude, and determination that served him well through medical school and a grueling neurosurgery residency. After his first round of treatment he was able to return to the operating room as a doctor, not a patient.

 

When Breath Becomes Air

by Paul Kalanithi, M.D.,

Dr. Paul Kalanithi was a 36-year-old resident physician who had, as he wrote, “reached the mountaintop” of anticipating a promising career as a neurosurgeon and neuroscientist. He had a loving wife, a supportive family and professors who respected his knowledge and skill. He seemed destined to be sought after, well paid, productive, successful, and  famous.

(note: a neurosurgeon treats  brain, spinal cord and nerve  diseases such as brain tumors that can be cured or improved with surgery,)

Unfortunately, “the culmination of decades of striving evaporated” when he was diagnosed with an aggressive form of lung cancer for which the prognosis was bleak, even with treatment. He was admitted to the very hospital where he trained as a neurosurgery resident, now  to learn what it is like to be a patient with a potentially terminal illness.

Dr. Kalanithi faced his diagnosis with the same resolve, fortitude, and determination that served him well through medical school and a grueling neurosurgery residency. After his first round of treatment he was able to return to the operating room as a doctor, not a patient.

Prior to entering medicine, Dr. Kalanithi had studied literature, earning degrees in English literature as well as human biology. He also completed a doctorate in history and philosophy of science and medicine at Cambridge.

Thus, when he realized he was facing his own death, he turned to his first love of writing to chronicle his experience and to explore “what makes human life meaningful?” And as he explored the meaning of what life is all about, he also explored the inevitability of death.

“I began to realize that coming in such close contact with my own mortality had changed both nothing and everything. 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.

But now I knew acutely. The problem wasn’t really a scientific one. The fact of death is unsettling. But there is no other way to live.”

Dr. Kalanithi passed away without completing his book, although his wife writes in the epilogue, “When Breath Becomes Air is complete, just as it is.” She and his parents kept their promise to have his book published after his death. She writes, “Paul was proud of this book, which was a culmination of his love for literature.”

Even before I finished reading this book, I felt as if I knew Paul and his wife Lucy. As someone who also enjoys writing, I can understand and appreciate his desire to preserve and share this experience.

This memoir is not so much a diary of what happened to Dr. Kalanithi as what happened within him as he confronted his own mortality and chose not to let it define the remainder of his life.

On the copyright page, “Death and Dying” is included in the list of categories for this book. However, you will not find “how to die” instructions here. Instead, you will learn how one man and his family chose to live despite knowing that he would  soon die.

His wife, Dr.Lucy Kalanithi, spoken publicly about her husband, his illness, his death, and the memories he left her and us through his book. Listen as she reflects on his legacy in this interview .

from the book

“In the end, it cannot be doubted that each of us can see only a part of the picture….Human knowledge is never contained in one person. It grows from the relationships we create between each other and the world, and still it is never complete. And Truth comes somewhere above all of them, where, as at the end of that Sunday’s (scripture) reading,

“The sowers and reapers can rejoice together. For here the saying is verified that ‘One sows and another reaps.’ I sent you to reap what you have not worked for; others have done the work, and you are sharing the fruits of their work.”

(note: the referenced scripture is from the Bible, John chapter 4, verses 36-38, precise version unidentified)

When Breath Becomes Air  was published by Random House.

Other reviews of his life and writing

exploring the HEART of life and death

Dr Aletha

a review of Being Mortal by Dr Atul Gawande

Dr. Gawande discusses end-of-life care- care when a disease has become terminal and a cure is no longer likely. Sometimes it is difficult to determine when that occurs. As he says, it is rare in medicine when there truly is “nothing more we can do”.

Being Mortal 

Medicine and What Matters in the End

by Atul Gawande

(This blog post features affiliate links which pays a small commission to this blog from purchases, without additional cost to you)

I read Being Mortal by Atul Gawande, M.D. (To be exact, I listened to the audio version)

Atul Gawande- Being Mortal-book cover

Dr. Gawande is a surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts and professor at Harvard Medical School. He writes for The New Yorker and has authored three other bestselling books.

In Being Mortal, he explores the way most people live, age and die and for the most part it’s not a pleasant prospect.

Caring for elderly people

As people age and lose independence due to frailness, illness, mental decline and poverty, they often also lose whatever is most important to them- their home, pets, hobbies, possessions. And these losses often occur to protect them from harm as they progress into assisted living centers, nursing homes and hospice.

Dr. Gawande describes how his  family in India expected  to care for their elderly relatives, which differed from what he saw happen when they immigrated to the United States. After becoming a physician, he recognized that our care of the elderly often robs them of the well-being that he sought to promote in his practice.

He wondered how it can be done differently. To find out, he interviewed people who are developing novel ways to provide care to older people, care that preserves their independence, dignity and choices while still keeping them safe and protected.

Most of us either have relatives or friends facing these decisions, or are facing them ourselves. If not now, we all will eventually. Whichever the case, this book show”s” the ultimate goal is not a good death but a good life-all the way to the very end. “

woman sitting in a cemetery
photo from the Lightstock.com collection, an affiliate link

“ the ultimate goal is not a good death but a good life-all the way to the very end.”

Atul Gawande

Caring for dying people

Finally, Dr. Gawande discusses end-of-life care- care when a disease has become terminal and a cure is no longer likely. Sometimes it is difficult to determine when that occurs. As he says, it is rare in medicine when there truly is “nothing more we can do”.

However, just because we can do something, doesn’t mean we should. Some treatments, rather  than extending life just prolong the suffering. Still it is heart wrenching for patients and families, along with their doctors, to decide that it is time to forgo treatment and instead opt for palliative care, with or without hospice.

(Palliative care focuses on symptom management and social and emotional support for patients and families.)

Dr. Gawande poignantly describes this process by sharing in detail his  father’s cancer diagnosis, treatment, progression, hospice care and death. He shows how difficult a process this can be, given that even he and his parents, all of whom are physicians, struggled to come to terms with the reality of terminal illness and the dying process. Though they were all familiar with and experienced in dealing with the medical system, they still felt unprepared to face the decisions required at the end of life. But in the end, both he and his father felt at peace with the outcome and Dr. Gawande senior did experience “a good life-all the way to the very end.”

Atul Gawande on Priorities, Big and Small

a podcast interview with Tyler Cowen

Other books by Dr. Gawande

Complications : A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science

In gripping accounts of true cases, surgeon Atul Gawande explores the power and the limits of medicine, offering an unflinching view from the scalpel’s edge. Complications lays bare a science not in its idealized form but as it actually is―uncertain, perplexing, and profoundly human.

Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance 

The struggle to perform well is universal: each of us faces fatigue, limited resources, and imperfect abilities in whatever we do. But nowhere is this drive to do better more important than in medicine, where lives may be on the line with any decision.

Atul Gawande, the New York Times bestselling author of Complications, examines, in riveting accounts of medical failure and triumph, how success is achieved in this complex and risk-filled profession

The Checklist Manifesto:How to Get Things Right

Atul Gawande shows what the simple idea of the checklist reveals about the complexity of our lives and how we can deal with it.

exploring the HEART of caring

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Dr Aletha

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