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  • Writer's pictureTerry Pace

When Breath Becomes Air

By Paul Kalanithi


Dr. Paul Kalanthi, MD (RIP 1977 - 2015) wrote When Breath Becomes Air during the couple of years that he lived following a lung cancer diagnosis in 2013. This is a remarkable first person account of how a young healthy neurosurgeon and neuroscientist dealt with his own cancer diagnosis, treatment, illness and ultimate death. This is one of the best, most honest and instructive books on illness, death, dying and the place of modern medicine and science in our lives.


Paul Kalanithi was an amazing human being. He sought to be in medicine after searching for life's meaning through literature and religion. In medicine he found a sort of foundation for a meaningful life in the study of and service to others lives. However, as his story unfolds he, like so many others with terminal or chronic illness, found that family, relationships and the small moments of ordinary joys served as his own source of deepest meaning.


This is a very moving story that shares many insights on becoming a doctor or healthcare provider and the unique world providers live in with others seeking life but facing death. He also shows the total commitment it can require to work as a health provider, certainly as a neurosurgeon, and the stress and physical demands of such work that may not be readily seen by those on the outside or by patients.


So, I feel this is an excellent book for anyone wishing to explore death and dying issues, existential issues about one's life or for the aspiring or practicing physician or healthcare provider of any type. The practice of empathy is an essential aspect to effective health care and Dr. Kalanthi shares openly how important and yet how difficult empathy can sometimes be.


I would add this book to two others that I have reviewed this year: Being Mortal by Dr Atul Gawande and Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder about the work of Dr Paul Farmer. All three of these physician authored stories deal with mortality and grief issues as well as the practice and ethics of medicine, including the role of empathy and collaborative, culturally sensitive practice. I would love to see medical students reading and discussing these works with experienced and thoughtful teachers and mentors. As a psychologist I found much to appreciate here and in each of these works. But also if you or someone you know may be walking in the shadowed pathway of illness, each of these books may be helpful friends to bring along.

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