A review by T.K.Ramesh

Please raise your hands, if you have cried while watching a movie? How many of you cried while reading a book? I did recently.

“Able was I ere I saw elba” said the great Napolean Bonaparte, and I say

“Stronger was I till I read When Breath Becomes Air”.

I have never been moved so much by a book. This book “When Breath Becomes Air” by Dr. Paul Kalanidhi or should I say Late Dr. Paul Kalanidhi appeals to your noble emotions as a Toastmaster would do in delivering his project 10 “Inspire your audience”.

When I say Late, I am not talking about an aging neurosurgeon, but I am talking about a neurosurgeon, who was just 36 and had so many dreams for his career and his family!

At the age of 36, on the verge of completing a decade’s worth of training as a neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanidhi was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. One day he was a doctor treating the dying, and the next he was a patient struggling to live. An just like that, the future he and his wife had imagined evaporated. When Breath Becomes Air chronicles Kalanithi’s transformation from a naïve medical student “possessed by the question of what, given that organisms die, makes a virtuous and meaningful life”, into a neurosurgeon at Stanford working in the brain, and finally into a patient and new father confronting his own mortality.

In Dr. Kalanithi’s vivid writing, the early childhood and adulthood of Dr. Kalanithi unfolds in front of you and transports you to their neighbourhood Kingman, Arizona, which 100 miles from Las Vegas.

The book presents interesting case studies of Dr. Kalanithi during his internship as neurosurgeon and how he coped with the stress and strain of being a doctor whose surgeries were successful, but could not save the patients who were terminally ill due to tumor or cancer.

  • What makes life worth living in the face of death?
  • What do you do when the future, no longer a ladder toward your goals in life, flattens out into a perpetual present?
  • How do you deal with your life, when all your plans for a great married life with career and children is suddenly no more in front of you?
  • What does it mean to have a child, nurture a new life as another fades away?

There are some of the questions Kalanithi wrestles with in his profoundly moving, exquisitely observed memoir.

Paul Kalanithi died in March 2015, while working on this book, yet his words live on as a guide and a gift to us all.

“I began to realise that coming face to face with my own mortality, in a sense, had changed nothing and everything”. He wrote “Seven words from Samuel Beckett began to repeat in my head: I can’t go on, I’ll go on”.

“When Breath Becomes Air” is an unforgettable, life-affirming reflection on the challenge of facing death, and on the relationship between doctor and patient, from a brilliant writer who became both.

I would recommend this book to any adult audience who is keen to learn about vagaries of life or who is very ambitious and does not know the value of quality time to be spent on himself and with his near and dear.