AANS Neurosurgeon | Volume 28, Number 4, 2019

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When Breath Becomes Air

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KMBT_C454-20160208111515“When Breath Becomes Air.” Paul Kalanithi, MD. Random House. New York. 2016. 228pp.

When has a neurosurgeon written a book that almost immediately made the bestseller lists? This posthumous book, written by Paul Kalanithi, MD, has done it.

Dr. Kalanithi died of metastatic lung cancer shortly after finishing his neurosurgical residency at Stanford University. Dr. Kalanithi’s memoir is a beautifully written book that every neurosurgeon, including those in training, must read. This book is unforgettable! After reading it, you will find yourself thinking about it for a very long time.

This book’s first paragraph will immediately grab your attention:

“I flipped through the CT scan images, the diagnosis was obvious: the lungs were matted with innumerable tumors, the spine deformed, a full lobe of the liver obliterated. Cancer, widely disseminated. I was a neurosurgical resident entering my final year of training. Over the last six years, I’d examined scores of such scans, on the off chance that some procedure might benefit the patient. But this scan was different: it was my own.”

Dr. Kalanithi’s pre-neurosurgery training was unique in that he loved literature. The title of this book was taken from a 17th-century poem by Fulke Greville and his favorite book was Religio Medici by Thomas Browne. His college education at Stanford emphasized literature, and he even completed a Master’s degree in that subject before going to medical school at Yale University.

Who can forget our years of medical training? Dr. Kalanithi’s recollections of medical school and residency will make you remember how you experienced those same events. However, the best part of this book is his honest assessment and battle with terminal illness — his wanting to live and learning to die. This is a book about the end of life that is also a celebration of life. Dr. Kalanithi has written a moving meditation on mortality. The mortality rate for life is still 100 percent. Death is something we all must face. This book is a wonderful primer in how to do that.

As Abraham Verghese, MD, wrote in the forward of this book, “…there is an honesty, a truth in the writing of this book that took my breath away.’ Yes, it will — Dr. Kalanithi and his wife Lucy, an internist who wrote the epilogue, will take your breath away and make you think about your mortality. I assure you that reading this book will make you think about what is important in life.

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