Where do I start with this beautiful book. When Breath becomes Air is written by Paul Kalanithi who was a recently qualified neurosurgeon suffering from stage IV metastatic lung cancer. Paul died in March 2015 and he is survived by his wife Lucy and their daughter Elizabeth Arcadia.
This autobiographical book is split into three parts, before and after diagnosis and after he has passed away. Paul talks about his life growing up first in new York but then moving to Arizona and how he developed a love for literature from his mother who gave him very advance books to read at a early age. This love for literature lead him to study literature at Stanford University. Paul had always had an interest in what made life meaningful. Not satisfied in the answers that literature gave him, he wanted to learn from a medical point of view. This lead to a Masters in History and Philosophy of Science at Cambridge University before he took a place at Yale Medical School.
Throughout Medical School, it was clear that Paul was a high achiever, after Medical School Paul took up residency in neuroscience. Neuroscience is known as been the most demanding physically and mentally, the book details his operations in detail. One particular moment Paul remembers was after an operation he performed he walked out and was eating a cookie cream sandwich and he saw the patient’s relatives being given life changing news. ‘I was making more moral slides than strides’, he noted.
The second part details his his life after the cancer diagnosis. Paul grapples with suddenly becoming the patient. He details one time that a Junior Doctor wouldn’t give him the medication he requested. The Doctor that was looking after him tells him that if he wants to stop thinking like a Doctor and just be a patient he just needs to say. Paul also grapples with whether him and Lucy should have a child. Indeed they do via IVF.
Paul details the missed opportunities, he misses his graduation for completing his residency as he was throwing up very violently. Paul misses out on two very good job offers, one because he cannot bear to move across the country and leave Lucy alone bringing up their daughter and looking after him.
The thread throughout the book is the interest at what makes life meaningful. I feel that Paul does not answer this because the answer is different for everyone.