When Breathe Becomes Air, by Paul Kalanithi is a distinguished account of one man’s journey into the alumni of high-ranking neurosurgeons, to a patient living with lung cancer.
We know how the story ends before we begin. Knowing this adds suspense and desire to encounter the pain and treasures to living before the final ending.
Paul Kananithi takes us through his second-generation American, middle-class up-bringing, the middle son of 3 boys, and into his academic pursuits that were polished for success since childhood by his mother.
He states in the second chapter with certainty, that he knew he would never become a doctor. While his life goals took a winding road, his prediction was accurate. He missed his own graduation from the neurosurgery department of Stanford residency training. He was about to receive the American Academy of Neurological Surgery’s highest award for research.
Had he survived he would have had depths to reflect on and share for years afterwards. Instead, we have his poignant brief account of his trails through living with cancer, how becoming a patient informed his practice as a medical doctor and how he sought meaning and purpose through each step of the way.
His path of becoming a neurosurgeon, an endurance training regime of seven inspiring but grueling years of extreme focus requiring the sacrificing basic the elements of living most of us take for granted- like getting regular sleep or having time for basic meals along with a life including space for at least one close relationship outside of work-study. These were eliminated. Over-riding the body’s cue’s for satiation and the soul’s need for emotional support was part of the weeding process to reaching the top. Those who made it, earned it.
Criticisms of the system are my own. With all due respect to Mr. Kalanithi and his family, the group mind that prepares the ground that nurtures a medical doctor’s development is one that trains the doctor to neglect the care of him/herself and to treat him/herself as a machine to be used in “saving lives”.
We all know the ending before we begin. How we live our life is how we save it.
Mr. Kalanithi's wife wrote in the epilogue:
Even while terminally ill, Paul was fully alive; despite physical collapse, he remained vigorous, open, full of hope not for an unlikely cure but for days that were full of purpose and meaning. 1.
His death and dying were marked by how he lived his life: with clarity, bravery, purpose and love.