What would you do if you knew you were dying of cancer and only had a few months left? What if you were one of the best neurosurgeons in the country and knew exactly how your body was going to degenerate as the disease progressed?
Paul Kalanithi wrote his moving memoir When Breath Becomes Air after he was diagnosed with metastatic lung cancer, towards the end of many gruelling years of training to be a neurosurgeon. The first half of the book traces his journey through medical school and early years of a residency program. Kalanithi, who came from a family of doctors had no desire to be one himself, drawn instead to studying English literature and biology. As he dunk deeper into the world of philosophy and literature in the search for the “meaning”, he realised medicine was the obvious answer – “moral action” being superior to “moral speculation.”
In the second half of the book, dedicated to Kalanithi’s life post-diagnosis, this quest for meaning and a remarkable insight into human nature shines through. The book is a multi-layered reflection on the nature of medicine and purpose, never for a moment self-pitying as the doctor-turned-patient struggles to come to terms with the inevitable. Kalanithi died at the age of 37 and his wife (also a doctor) put the finishing touches to the manuscript of the book. He leaves behind a rich, nuanced and deeply-touching account of a life well-lived.