There are humans who conquer literature and humans who conquer science, but it is a rare human who can successfully master both. Paul Kalanithi is one such human. In his book When Breath Becomes Air, Kalanithi, a Stanford educated neurosurgeon on the verge of naming his price for a job is diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer. A leading specialist who had spent a decade learning to treat terminally patients is forced to surrender his white coat and become the patient himself.
This book is a triumph in many ways. Though it traverses the scientific world and gives graphic details of cases including his own cancer, it is incredibly human and linguistic and presents life’s BIG questions in very real ways. Why are we here, what is life’s meaning and how can we best be of service? Depending on your background, on your way of seeing these answers may vary and for Kalanithi they were the very essence of what he was striving to answer throughout his life.
He writes poetically and honestly and looks through the lenses of science, literature and faith to help him navigate his journey. As a reader, you are right beside him; hopeful, yet aware that his life will end much too shortly. If there is a legacy to leave, Kalanithi has left it in everything he worked for. A leading neurosurgeon, he strove to be the best- coming in early and leaving late; continuously striving to be the best by understanding that it was not sufficient to be technically skillful, he too had to be human with his patients; choosing his words carefully to help them to have the best possible outcomes. He was a man who lived with integrity- always self-evaluating and always striving to become better. The legacy is also in the wife and infant daughter that he left behind- the source of one of his greatest joys.
This book is a game changer. I could not put it down. It will shake you and it will move you. Kalanithi astutely shows us what it is to be human, how we are all essentially alone and that we have to come to terms with that. While how we choose to live, where we invest our time may perhaps change if we were given a limit, it will nevertheless come to an end and that time is of course undetermined. Time is something he never seemed to squander. His career was a clear trajectory; his every move calculated and though his life was cut short, his story and his words live on in this great piece of work.