VM Book Reviews: When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

Paul Kalanithi's book, "When Breath Becomes Air" takes a deep look at what it's like to have a terminal illness and to explore one's own mortality. "Severe illness wasn't life-altering, it was life-shattering."

Paul's perspective on mortality is colored by his years as a talented Neurosurgeon, having to often face the terminal diagnosis and life-or-death choices his own patients have faced. "Like my own patients, I had to face my mortality and try to understand what made my life worth living."

He shares with us a glimpse of life in medical school, and notes how it "sharpened my understanding of the relationship between meaning, life and death." And he poses important questions like, in the face of terminal illness, "What makes life meaningful enough to go on living?" 

As a neurosurgeon, Paul's decisions must be made cautiously and with compassion. "Life and death decisions and struggles...surely a kind of transcendence." He shares the challenges of helping families make important decisions, such as, considering what the patient might want after a traumatic brain injury, "an easy death or to struggle between bags of fluids going in, others coming out, to persist despite being unable to struggle." 

Paul describes his role not as "as death's enemy, but as its ambassador." "The call to protect life -- and not merely life but another's identity; it is perhaps not too much to say another's soul -- was obvious in its sacredness."

This book read quickly and Paul's part was most eloquently written. We learn a lot from Paul, his compassionate care, and his journey through acceptance of his own mortality. 

Have you helped a friend or loved one face a terminal diagnosis? What was the most important lesson you learned?