Our reviewer this month is Board Member Ruth Du Bois
Ruth’s background in palliative care stems from over 42 years of work as an RN and nurse educator in a variety of areas including geriatrics, surgery, medicine, mental health, and community home care.
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
Paul Kalanithi is a 36-year-old neurosurgeon and neuroscientist with a passion for writing, when he is diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer. Stunned by the upheaval this turn of events has in his plans for a future as a doctor, scientist, and writer not to mention a life with his wife who is also a doctor, and a future family, he engages in writing this memoir (this book is non-fiction). Predictably, he examines his past decisions to pursue medicine in place of his love for English literature and writing, his values and beliefs, his current aspirations as a “patient” in light of his yearning to return to the OR as a surgeon. Dr. Kalanithi dialogues with the reader through diagnosis, 3 stages of chemotherapy, periods of remission, and the final period of his life before death. He and his wife, Lucy decide to store a sample of his sperm prior to his chemotherapy, and later decide to conceive a child through in vitro fertilization (IVF). A baby girl, born to them 8 months before his death, brings about joy and meaning at a time in his life when he and Lucy are especially challenged by the burdens of his advancing disease.
This small book is chockfull of thoughtful reflections on the meaning of life, of mortality, and belief in a higher power. Kalanithi contemplates whether prognosticating on his length of time to live is helpful or hindering, whether he should try to resume a “normal” life as a doctor or stay home, how to best prepare his wife for life without him and what that means for her future, and where he might “go” after death. Despite the sad circumstances, the memoir is uplifting and hopeful, sprinkled liberally with quotes and passages from the profound works of philosophers and poets dear to Kalanithi’s heart. It ends with an epilogue written by his wife Lucy after his death whereby she fulfills a promise made to her husband to ensure the memoir is published and shared with the world.
Emotionally charged and deeply meditative, this memoir will appeal to people who want to contemplate the mysteries of birth and death, of our mortality as human beings, and of the great epistemological questions of life—why do we live? Why do we die? Is there a God? What happens after our life on Earth? Kalanithi’s musings are honest, open, direct, and unflinching in their exposure of his humanity with all its vulnerability and resilience. It is truly a little gem on the library shelf, one I dare you to pick up and read.