When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

Wellcome Book Prize 2017 shortlist: When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

Review published on March 15, 2017.

Neurosurgery is not for the faint hearted. It demands the highest training and skill for even a couple of millimetres difference can literally mean kill or cure. This profession is the one that Paul Kalanithi chose with the ambitious aim of having a virtuous and meaningful life. He never wanted to become a doctor, having had personal experience of growing up in a family of medical practitioners. But, he ended up choosing this career after studying English literature and human biology followed by a master’s in the history and philosophy of science. It was whilst training as a neurosurgeon that he learnt to talk to patients about their treatments, their hopes and sometimes the stark realities of their prognosis. To deal with the suffering of the patient and their families, he had to become mentally tough and remote, pressures that not all of his colleagues could cope with.

Then one day the tables were turned; he became the patient.

He had dismissed the back pain and the exhaustion as part of the job and never sought advice until it was too late. His diagnosis was metastatic lung cancer. As his hopes and dreams evaporated; he realised he may never become a qualified surgeon. He had spent his career treating dying people every day. When the tables were turned, he faced his own death with dignity. It did make him see how his chosen profession treated those coping with terminal illness.

We shall rise insensibly, and reach the tops of the everlasting hills, where the winds are cool and the sight is glorious

It is an eloquently written book and such a sad story. Towards the end of his life they decide to have a child, knowing that the wider family would support Lucy; the description of him being at the birth but barely able to rise from his bed is very moving. Finally, Lucy’s eulogy to Paul is equally heart breaking and full of love. It is a painfully honest account of a short, but intense life.

Paul Cheney 4*

 

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, published on 5 January, 2017 by Vintage in paperback

Shortlisted for the Wellcome Book Prize 2017

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