When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

by Varunika
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Treat this, as not just another book because this is a soul stirring story of faith and courage, coming from the pen of a dying man.

As exhilarated, I am to write down something about this book, I am also experiencing an emotional surge, at the same moment. And this feeling of ambivalence is the most defining feature of this book. It stays with the reader throughout the book. You will cry and you will smile. You will experience the duality of emotions of a momentous nature. You will find your soul divided between, the happiness of reading this book and the devastation caused by the loss of such a rare soul.  Since the start, you are aware that these are the last words of a dying man. Yet you will envision life through his words, in a way, you have never done before. I promise you this. I read the book for the first time in 2016. Even now, I flip through the pages to find life there.

The book chronicles the painful transformation of a 36-year-old Neurosurgeon into a patient diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. Passionate about his job as a Neurosurgeon and his dream of writing a book, he endeavored to be both, excelled at both until death came calling. The book explores all the facets of his life beautifully and seamlessly. His training period, his sublime relationship with his wife, his interactions with his patients and then his rattling progression into a patient and his brokenness as a dying father of an 8-month-old daughter, its all there in the rawest form possible.

There is an excerpt from the book which I would like to share with you, and I quote:

“Before operating a patient’s brain, I realized, I must first understand his mind: his identity, his values, what makes his life worth living, and what devastation makes it reasonable to let that life end. The cost of my dedication to succeed 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.”-  

If Paul was like that as a medical professional, can you imagine the kind of person he must have been?

There is a chapter in the book which he has dedicated to, his experience of training in the Ob-gyn department. His sensibilities and his vulnerabilities on handling his first delivery, make you fall in love with Paul, the person, even as he discharges his duties as Paul, the surgeon.

When he shares his first experience of treating patients who eventually die, there is an extract in which he mentions that it is an unbearable burden to shoulder throughout your life. The aftermath of death in the life of family members and the doctors as well, sometimes does not attain closure. As I read through those pages, I remember being wrapped in remorse and gratitude, towards the medical fraternity. Such a difficult job! So much of it is moral obligation!

As you read the book and get acquainted with his journey, you will realize that sometimes getting stronger by the day, is the only option. For instance, people with a terminal illness, what should their take on life be? Paul’s doctor presents a question to him right at the start of his diagnosis. It is really an answer to most of our questions. You must figure out what’s most important to you.

In the book, you will realize, that is exactly what Paul did, up until his last breath. Amidst the chemotherapies and physical therapies and CT scans, he wrote this book, continued discharging his duties as a medical professional and along with his wife decided on bringing another life to this world.

You may wonder if I have given out all the details of the book. Trust me I haven’t. The real story is intact in that book.

Read it, even if you already know that it has a sad ending. You will find out something about happiness, even then.

Read it, if you are in despair and feel that you have nothing to look forward to. The book will give you a perspective.

Read it because this is as real as life can be.

Other details like the language used, the storyline, the characterization, suitable for, etc. This book is beyond all these considerations.

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