Book Review: When Breath Becomes Air

I’ve had When Breath Becomes Air on my list for about three years. I’ve often prioritized other books or put off reading it because I knew it would be heavy and difficult. Luckily it was our book club pick for this month and I am so glad I finally read it.

This book was written by a Stanford neurosurgeon diagnosed with late stage lung cancer. He describes his life, philosophy, and reflections on practicing medicine and dying. Yes, it was incredibly sad, but it was so much more than sad. I stayed up two hours past my usual bedtime reading this–caught up in a journey even when I already knew the ending.

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The writing was so beautiful; the thoughts so insightful and grounding. His reflections made me think about my own mortality and facing death of those we love. He lived his life so fully with a dedication to his goals & values. His book is a testament to this and will continue to impact the world long after his passing.

I went to an Emory alumni dinner this past weekend, and one alum brought her husband who happened to be a neurosurgeon at Stanford. Since I just finished the book and wanted to create conversation, I brought up that I had just finished the book. To my surprise, the neurosurgeon had actually worked with Paul Kalanithi and knew him well. I was slightly shocked at how nonchalantly I had brought it up; I immediately apologized. He stopped me and said that he was glad that the book was having such a broad impact–the best possible outcome for such a tragedy.

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It also reminded me that Paul was not a mythical figure, but a real person who died only a few short years ago. His legacy lives on not only through his book, but also through the hundreds of physicians, nurses, patients, and friends with whom he interacted. A few days after finishing the book, I was listening to NPR One and a Modern Love podcast episode came on (also an essay–“When a Couch is More Than a Couch”)…it was all about a woman who was diagnosed with stage four breast cancer at 39. It was deeply engaging; and the twist at the end connected back to the book. Definitely give it a listen!

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