21 July 2023
BJS Bookshelf: When Breath Becomes Air
26 January 2023
When Breath Becomes Air is an autobiography written by the late neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi. A highly accomplished, talented and promising young surgeon, Kalanithi suddenly finds himself facing a devastating diagnosis of Stage IV lung cancer at the age of thirty-six. Confronted with his own mortality, he rushes to share every precious moment with his loved ones, and to document his experiences during both illness and treatment in this book for them to cherish as his legacy afterwards. In particular, he bears in mind his new born daughter in the hope that one day she may know her father through his writing. Throughout the book, he describes his plight of grappling with a serious diagnosis while enduring gruelling cancer treatment, and the dilemma of having to leave behind a young wife and a baby. Moreover, he gains insight into his own patients’ struggles and insists on going in to work to operate, demonstrating passion and commitment towards his career.
Surgeons must read this book in order to assimilate the important values it highlights. These include the recognition of how limited our time on this earth may be, and that whilst we are busy planning rigorously for the future and building a career, we risk missing out on the present and the many treasurable moments it holds with friends and family. More importantly, Kalanithi emphasizes that we must learn to see our patients as the individuals they are “instead of a problem to be solved”. Patients suffer greatly in receiving life-changing diagnoses, dealing with frequent hospital visits, and undergoing tests and intense treatment. We shouldn’t have to wait until we fall ill ourselves to appreciate their ordeal. In addition, he reminds us to question our life’s purpose and the legacy we leave behind. While we are always debating whether work-life balance in surgery is possible, Kalanithi’s commitment to his family and patients and his persistence in writing this book, racing time in the process, are a testament to the possibility of achieving everything we aspire to; all we need are tenacity and a genuine sense of urgency. Finally, this book inspires us to be well-rounded surgeons and to stretch our talents and abilities to their limits. In addition to being a neurosurgeon and an Ivy League graduate, Paul Kalanithi was a writer with degrees in English Literature and Philosophy of Science and Medicine. His flair for the written word is evident in this sincere and powerful narrative which is sure to touch readers and, in some instances, move them to tears. We are surgeons but we are also human beings; When Breath Becomes Air is Paul Kalanithi’s immortal reminder of our own mortality.
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