Growing up with a mostly absent father who was a cardiologist, Paul Kalanithi decided he would not go in the medical field. Instead, his love of books and writing drove him to study English where he explored the human condition through the works of famous authors. Until one day when Kalanithi realized the only way to really study peoples’ relationships with sickness and death was through medicine. So he decides to change his course and medicine quickly turns from a chore to his life calling. But as Kalanithi is finishing up his final year in residency for neurosurgery with big plans for the future, he is diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. Now, along with his family, he must begin to make new plans not only for the present difficulties, but for after he is gone.
Technically, When Breath Becomes Air is incomplete. Kalanithi began writing it after his diagnosis–even wearing silver-lined gloves to use the trackpad when chemotherapy caused his fingers to crack–and his wife, Lucy, had it finished posthumously. But at the same time the story is complete. Broken into two parts, the first part follows Kalanthi from childhood into college where he decides to go into medicine and finally through medical school and his decision to become a neurosurgeon. The section is filled with his experiences throughout his training and how his patients changed from tasks to be checked off to human beings who needed his help and comfort. Kalanithi depicted himself as a normal human being with flaws, and I enjoyed reading about the patients he met and the surgeries he performed during his time as a doctor.
The second part focuses more on Kalanithi’s fight with lung cancer and how he and his wife handled the situations dealt to them, ranging from whether to have a child or not and whether to accept a new job in a new state or to let it go. It is a heart wrenching section about Kalanithi’s increased sickness and deterioration, but it gives readers a first hand account of what it is like to have lung cancer and the decisions and stresses that comes with it. Beautifully written, When Breath Becomes Air was one of the best memoirs I have read and I highly recommend you put it on your to be read list.