Tuesday, November 29, 2016

When Breath Becomes Air - kinda like Being Mortal...but not

My buddy Phil recommended I read When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, with a forward by Abraham Verghese.  This is a true story unlike most true stories.  To wit:

At the age of thirty-six, on the verge of completing a decade's worth of training as a neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer.  One day he was a doctor treating the dying, and the next he was a patient struggling to live.  And just like that, the future he and his wife had imagined evaporated.  When Breath Becomes Air chronicles Kalanithi's transformation from a naive medical student "possessed," as he wrote, "by the question of what, given that all organisms die, makes a virtuous and meaningful life" into a neurosurgeon at Stanford working in the brain, the most critical place for human identity, and finally into a patient and new father confronting his own mortality.

This is a mesmerizing account of Paul's journey to become a doctor and the unfortunate tailspin to a patient.  He died in March of 2015, after receiving his initial diagnosis 22 months earlier.  He didn't finish his book.  But we see most of what happened before and after he got his news.  And, fortunately for us, his widow, Lucy, wrote a beautiful epilogue to let us know what transpired at the end of Paul's life and how Lucy and their daughter, Elizabeth Acadia ("Cady"), are doing now.

I can write a lot about When Breath Becomes Air.  But, for the sake of readability, I think I'm going to list the elements of the book that stood out for me:

1.  The whole story of how he becomes a neuro-surgeon/scientist is fascinating.
2.  The book reminds me a lot of Being Mortal, by Atul Gawande, and you know what I thought about that book (you can see my 2-part review on 12/9/15 and 12/13/15).
3.  The book made me realize what a great loss to the medical community and, by extension, to the general public that his early death is.
4.  The explanation of brain function is done in such a way that even somebody outside the medical community (i.e. me) could understand and appreciate.
5.  Paul's emphasis on identity humanizes the medical approach to brain disfunction.
6.  I really like how he compares brain surgery with the tortoise and hare fable.
7.  Paul flat-out writes beautifully.

I know that it's tough to squeeze in books that you are not expecting to read.  But let me say that this is a small book physically and only 225 pages.  It won't take you long to get through it.  And, believe me, it's worth it.

1.  Barnes & Noble, on Stevens Creek in San Jose, has a 3-day author event coming up starting this Saturday, December 3.  Here is the schedule along with the list of authors and genres:

2.  Rebecca Skloot's The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is being turned into a movie on HBO sometime next year.  And Oprah herself will be one of the stars.  (If I already told you about this, which is a distinct possibility, I apologize!)  If you are interested, you can read my January 19, 2016 review of the book.


  1. This has been on my list for a while. I know I need to read it but will probably wait until after the holidays.

  2. Glad to know you enjoyed it! I have this book on my iPad, but have been waiting to be in the right mood to read it.

  3. Great review. Such a sad loss!

    1. True. Aside from the family, it makes you wonder what he might have accomplished in his field and how it could have made a real difference for people suffering from brain disease.