When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
“When Breath Becomes Air” is a very moving account of Paul Kalanithi’s life, especially since being diagnosed with cancer. Paul has a very promising career – at first he does a Masters in English and then moves on to neurosurgery. He explains this well – he has a deep rooted interest in seeking true meaning and suggests that it has to be at the intersection of philosophy and the sciences. He later forms the opinion that despite the hard nature of the work, neurosurgery places him nearest to his quest.
Paul is diagnosed with lung cancer in his thirties, after he shows symptoms of weight loss and body pain. His life changes totally after that, and he now sees life as a patient. The metamorphosis from a doctor to a terminally ill patient is a very revealing experience for Paul. There are also many unknowns and decisions to be made – can he get back to neurosurgery ever, how much time does he have and how should he spend it, how he should be secure his wife Lucy’s future. After considerable debate, he and his wife decide to start a family.
The treatment shows promise initially and the cancer does not progress. Paul gets back to neurosurgery, and gradually almost maintains his earlier busy schedules with sheer willpower. After a few weeks, though, his health suffers setbacks with more tumors and the line of treatment proving difficult. The birth of their daughter is a joyous moment which Paul cherishes.
The writing is extremely good – almost poetic, and if only time had allowed Paul to write more. The afterword by his wife Lucy is very touching as well. As she says – Paul maintained his composure and dignity at all times and faced death bravely. He was never broken, and his life offers lessons for others. This is also a story of a strong family with Paul’s parents, brothers, his wife Lucy and daughter where death visited the person they loved dearly, much too soon. For his daughter Elizabeth Acadia, it is a poignant record of the remarkable person her dad was – deeply intellectual and very human.
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