Book Review: When Breath Becomes Air

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Title: When Breath Becomes Air

Author: Paul Kalanithi

Publisher: Bodley Head

Publication Date: Feb 2016

Synopsis: What makes a virtuous and meaningful life? Paul Kalanithi believed that the answer lay in medicine’s most demanding specialization, neurosurgery. Here are patients at their life’s most critical moment. Here he worked in the most critical place for human identity, the brain. What is it like to do that every day; and what happens when life is catastrophically interrupted?

When Breath Becomes Air is an unforgettable reflection on the practice of medicine and the relationship between doctor and patient, from a gifted writer who became both.

Rating: 5/5

Review: Firstly I would just like to say that I wouldn’t usually choose to read an autobiography, it just isn’t my genre. That said, it is 2017 and I have sworn to try something different. This book caught my eye in Waterstones and, after reading the blurb, I found myself oddly drawn to it, it seemed like a breath of fresh air even though the entire premise of the book is the view of life and the oncoming of death.

This book was sensational, it is my very first 5* rating of the year. Paul’s writing is clean, pragmatic and full of clarity, just as you would expect a doctor to write, but also with an overwhelming sense of emotion and empathy. The introduction begins with his devastating news, that he has cancer. This opening took me back simply because I didn’t know anything about this man and, not only was he instantly introduced to me as a man with cancer, but I felt I was intruding on a sensitive personal moment, the moment he found out his fate. From the introduction I was taken back through Paul’s life where he beautifully articulated the winding path of his childhood and decisions that led to him choosing a path in medicine. His story wasn’t just about his physical journey but his mental one as well, his thought processes were also documented which really gave me a true insight into this man’s nature and beliefs. It made him more real and it created a feel that this book was more of a diary than an autobiography because his thoughts, feelings and dreams were all laid out on these pages.

What struck me most in this first section of this book was how Paul constantly tried to improve himself, not just as a doctor but as a human being. He strived to take time, something many people in the medical profession do not have, to appreciate others thoughts and feelings at the time he told them they had cancer or other potentially life threatening issues. He wanted to bring empathetic side to consultancy, something that is generally lost due to workload and time, and he understood that while he may be telling the same news several times over, it was the first time that that person would have heard it and the impact on their lives would be catastrophic. He treated each case as if he was telling it for the first time and this small change resulted in him connecting deeply with his patients. For me, this decision that he made spoke volumes about him not only as a doctor but as a human being and it highlighted his need to connect with others on a much deeper level and its what made the next section so painful to read.

Paul’s pragmatism makes you put your own views and life into perspective. This doctor swiftly becomes the patient when he is diagnosed with lung cancer; his work for over 10 years, with only 1 year left to complete, is left shattered and his life completely turned upside down. The natural reaction to this news would be to breakdown and curse at the world wondering what you had done to deserve this, Paul’s reaction is to simply say “why not me?”. He marches towards death with his head high, unafraid and simply accepting which, to me, is overwhelmingly inspiring.

The final piece of this book is written by his wife Lucy. Her writing is filled with admiration and love for her husband, a man who was clearly her soul mate in every way. Her beautiful words are not crisp and pragmatic like her husband’s but are filled with intense emotion, love, pride and even thankfulness in spite of the hand that life dealt her and Paul. It was the perfect ending to this book and is one that completely broke my heart into pieces.

As I said before, autobiographies aren’t my genre as I find many to be self indulgent and over descriptive; this book couldn’t be any further away from that. It is exquisitely written and it helps you to gain a whole new perspective on life and death. By the end, you feel like you have lost a good friend.

Paul has inspired me, his words “[…] knowing that even if I’m dying, until I actually die, I am still living” has had a profound effect on me. We should all remember that even though one day we will die, at this very moment we are living and so we should truly live every second to its fullest.

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