Book Review: When Breath Becomes Air

Book: When Breath Becomes Air

Author: Paul Kalanithi

Pages: 228

Format: Audible (but eventually got the hard copy)

Rating: 5/5

At first I was a little bit weary of reading this book because I had seen multiple unfavorable reviews. However, upon sharing this news on the Twitterverse I was met with shock and dismay as fellow tweeters could not understand how anyone could describe this book as less than incredible. I ended up going with the recommendation of my fellow readers on Twitter and purchased the audiobook on Audible. I have listened to several books using Audible ("The Wait" by Meagan Good and Devon Franklin, "Complications" by Atul Gawande, "ObamaCare Survival Guide" by Nick Tate, etc. all of which I highly recommend), and I am quite in love with this service. As someone who enjoys reading material outside of medical textbooks but hardly has the time to leisurely read for pleasure, Audible has really been my saving grace. With the Audible app on my iPhone and iPad I am able to listen to books while I'm driving, working out, or folding laundry. Although I will always prefer print, audiobooks are a highly recommend to all the busy bees out there who enjoy light multi-tasking.

Audible app on the iPad

Audible app on the iPad

Enough about Audible and on to the book! Let me start off by saying that "When Breath Becomes Air" is a work of art. Truly. Not only is the story of Dr. Kalanithi extremely moving, but the way he describes it is poetry. Oh to have the medical skills of a neurosurgeon and the writing skills of a literary. The author took his readers on a journey throughout his life with a poignant motif about death. His curiosity about the meaning of death and how to ultimately embrace it punched me on a visceral level. His words often took me to a dark place contemplating what life would be like if I knew death would come far sooner than I had ever hoped or anticipated. Although those thoughts were scary, they usually are when I start think to existentially, my perspective on life and my career goals took a much needed shift in a more enlightened direction. One of the things that struck me most reading Dr. Kalanithi's story was his desire to continue working as a neurosurgeon despite the tornado of health issues surrounding him. He found so much fulfillment in his work that even when he knew his time on this earth was going to be cut painfully short, he still pursued practicing and learning medicine to the fullest. In the latter years of his life he remained committed to helping his patients. I strive to be in that place one day. One day I would like to be in a place where if someone told me I had one year to live I would still be going to be work every day as a physician. I have thought about something similar to this before, like if someone told me if I would only live for another four years would I still go to medical school. Strange, but even two or three years ago as I first started thinking about this the answer was always a resounding yes. However, how would I truly ever know what I would do in that position without ever going through it. Reading "When Breath Becomes Air" brought me into the headspace of someone who had, and I found it reassuring to see that a physician out there would selflessly give everything he had to his patients during the most tumultuous part of his life even when no one would blame him for quitting. 

When I got to the end of this intellectually stimulating work and tears started to well up in my eyes asDr. Kalanithi's widow closed out the book I felt more at peace with the idea of death than I ever had before. Therefore, I recommend this book for several different reasons. One: it is a great example of what exquisite writing is like, two: it motivates and inspires the reader to find their passion and nourish it relentlessly, and three: it forces the reader to become more comfortable with the idea of death and to start questioning what it means to them. Get this book and get ready to question, cry, and be inspired. 

Being with patients in these moments certainly had its emotional cost, but it also had its rewards. I don't think I ever spent a minute of any day wondering why I did this work, or whether it was worth it. 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...The cost of my dedication to success was high, and the ineluctable failures brought me nearly unbearable guilt. Those burdens are what make medicine holy and wholly impossible: in taking up another's cross, one must sometimes get crushed by the weight.

-Paul Kalanithi