In the memoir, “When Breath Becomes Air,” Paul Kalanithi details his thoughts during the last year and a half of his life.
Kalanithi had a successful career. By age 36 he was a neurosurgeon and had won neuroscience’s highest research award and considered for a distinguished neuroscience professorship at Stanford University. He also had a master’s degree in English literature and was married to an internist.
But then Kalanithi was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. The prognosis was dim; there were no effective surgeries or treatments. Kalanithi died on March 22, 2015.
In his memoir, which was published posthumously in January 2016, Kalanithi shares his experience with terminal illness, setting out to answer the question that inspired him to go into medicine: “What makes human life meaningful, even in the face of death and decay?”
In an article, the Huffington Post, quotes four passages from Kalanithi’s memoir that give insight on the answer that question.
- “The tricky part of illness is that, as you go through it, your values are constantly changing. You try to figure out what matters to you, and then you keep figuring it out.”
Kalanithi initially returned to neuroscience after learning of his illness, but later left and decided to focus on being a husband and writer. In this stage of his life, Kalanithi gained new values to live by.
- “Human knowledge is never contained in one person. It grows from the relationships we create between each other and the world, and still it is never complete.”
After Kalanithi became ill, he went to the hospital where he worked, this time as a patient rather than a doctor. This experience helped him realize that his perspective and knowledge as a doctor was limited. Once Kalanithi became a cancer patient, he saw the other side of–and was finally able to empathize with–the suffering of his patients and families.
- “As a resident, my highest ideal was not saving lives–everyone eventually dies–but guiding a patient or family to an understanding of death or illness.”
While hospitalized, Kalanithi worried that he had become desensitized to trauma and human suffering. Kalanithi previously believed that those who were suffering “had it coming,” but he later realized that this was not true. He learned the power of human connection by building friendships with others battling illness.
- “You filled a dying man’s days with sated joy, a joy unknown to me in all my prior years, a joy that does not hunger for more and more but rests, satisfied. In this time, right now, that is an enormous thing.”
During Kalanithi’s final months, he and his wife, Lucy, discussed whether or not to have a child. Lucy worries that having to say goodbye to a child would make Kalanithi’s death more painful. “Wouldn’t it be great if it did?” Kalanithi replied. Kalanithi and his wife believed that life is not about avoiding suffering. In his last months, Kalanithi found tremendous joy in his relationship with his daughter, Cady.