When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

Review published on May 16, 2016.

“Even if I’m dying, until I actually die, I’m still living.”

Paul Kalanithi, like any medical student, spent countless hours in the hospital, working gruellingly long shifts as a neurosurgeon. So when his back began to ache and he was fatigued, he was not unduly alarmed. However, when he began to lose a lot of weight and the pain grew worse, tests revealed that this promising young physician was about to become a patient himself.

Diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, Paul and his wife Lucy embarked on a journey that was more about living than dying. They decided to go ahead and start a family and their daughter Cady was Paul’s pride and joy, born just months before he died. The early chapters of the book outline the kind of person Paul was -a brave, thoughtful student of literature and philosophy as well as of neuroscience. Even before his illness, he was often occupied with questions about the meaning of life because as a neurosurgeon he was used to making life and death decisions for and with his patients. In addition to becoming a surgeon, he also wanted to write, and he got that opportunity with this book. His poetic prose show what a talent he has. I use the present tense purposefully here, because as novelist Abraham Verghese says in the Foreword to this book, it’s as if Paul is still with us, his hopeful voice still seems to linger in our hearts and minds.

This dying doctor’s gripping memoir is a natural, honest, and unflinching account of his journey. Paul’s willingness to reflect and share and not avert his eyes from death, will undoubtedly inspire and comfort others who are ill or who experience loss. The final paragraph is directed towards his infant daughter and it is breathtakingly beautiful. The Epilogue is written by Paul’s wife, because Paul did die before he could finish the book. Lucy’s voice rounds out the story. I loved hearing from her as well.

I fully agree with novelist Ann Patchett who called this book a “universal donor,” one to recommend to anyone and everyone.

Joanne Booy
Personal 5

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
Bodley Head hbk Feb 2016

Thanks to Joanne’s Reading Blog

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