When Breath Becomes Air


Review by Sabine

Dr. Paul Kalanithi lead a very ambitious, fascinating life that he eventually chronicled in this book, When Breath Becomes Air. However, when he was diagnosed he came to the realization that he had not pursued one of his passions, literature and writing it, because of his time as a neurosurgical resident. With this realization he set on writing an autobiography. The introduction, by Abraham Verghese, tells its readers that by reading this book, you feel that Dr. Kalanithi is still alive, and is still actively influencing those around him. When somebody reads this book, they will not be able to forget about it. This story not only confronts the matter of death, but also the story of how Dr. Kalanithi could not pursue his interest with his busy life as a neurosurgical resident and when he finally finishes his residency, he is diagnosed with a cancer that prevents him from enjoying his life.

The epilogue, by his wife, Lucy (also a doctor), shows the struggle he had to go through to write this book. This struggle, however, was not depicted in his writing as, his paragraphs flow magnificently from the beginning to the end. It opens with Dr. Kalanithi introducing his diagnosis and the conditions he was living in at the time.

After his introduction, Dr. Kalanithi dives into his life before the diagnosis. He begins with his childhood, in which he develops a love-hate relationship with medicine because of his father, who was never home, working as a cardiologist. He also explores the possibility of medicine being his calling rather than just a profession. Dr. Kalanithi also becomes deeply interested in the literature and poetry that his strict mother would give him. This sparked his interest in literature that pushed him to write this book.

Dr. Kalanithi began his education studying literature at Stanford and philosophy at Cambridge, then to study medicine at Yale. He then continues his medical pursuit with his residency at Stanford.  He chronicles his experiences as a resident to a skilled doctor.

Towards the very end of his residency is when he is diagnosed with cancer. With his diagnosis, Dr. Kalanithi explores with his wife and doctor how he should live his life, asking questions about whether he should continue his career as a neurosurgeon or to pursue one of his significant interests: writing and literature. He tries to figure out whether or not he should have a child and how he should continue his life, not knowing how long he has.

When Breath Becomes Air is engaging from start to finish. Dr. Kalanithi masterfully chronicles his emotions and questions, and shows the successful life that is no longer secure because of his diagnosis. It leaves a lasting impression on its readers, but the largest impact it has on its readers is that Dr. Kalanithi was so skilled in so many departments, but he does fall victim to tragedy. He wants to live, but ultimately must accept his probable death, all through his struggle through his final months as a resident.

Check out When Breath Becomes Air at the Newport Beach Public Library