A Great Read: When Breath Becomes Air

Recently, when I have time, I like to squeeze in an hour or two of reading every now and then. I know I should be reading more, especially as a student; however, Social Networking Services (SNS) and the internet, in general, have been pulling my priorities away.

But not too long ago, I finished reading a very thought-provoking book titled When Breath Becomes Air: an autobiography by an American neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi, and I encourage anyone to also give it a read. 

It is his memoir, written as he battled against stage IV lung cancer, and later published as part of his will to have his work released to the public.

If you were diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer just as you were finishing your medical residency, what would you do? A doctor treating patients one day, to a patient receiving treatment the next. Very tragic, very ironic. 

It’s this deep contrast of positions he experiences that brings about his realization.

Dr. Kalanithi’s consistent question throughout his memoir was: “what makes human life meaningful?”

As a youth, it was to discover where “biology, morality, literature, and philosophy intersect.” 

What makes human life meaningful? I still felt literature provided the best account of the life of the mind, while neuroscience laid down the most elegant rules of the brain.

Literature not only illuminated another’s experience, it provided, I believed, the richest material for moral reflection.

Throughout college, my monastic, scholarly study of human meaning would conflict with my urge to forge and strengthen the human relationships that formed that meaning. If the unexamined life was not worth living, was the unlived life worth examining?

It was to answer this question that he, who was more interested in literature at the time chose to study medicine.

Later on, as a physician, Dr.Kalanithi recognizes the issue of medicine as having an “incorrect view” of what makes life meaningful.

The problem is that they have had almost no view at all. Medicine’s focus is narrow. Medical professionals concentrate on repair of health, not sustenance of the soul. Yet – and this is the painful paradox – we have decided that they should be the ones wholargely define how we live in our waning days.

He points out the paradox: a trade between ourselves and our health.

While all doctors treat diseases, neurosurgeons work in the crucible of identity: every operation on the brain is, by necessity, a manipulation of the substance of our selves, and every conversation with a patient undergoing brain surgery cannot help but confront this fact.

Brain surgery is usually the most dramatic event they have ever faced and, as such, has the impact of any major life event.At those critical junctures, the question is not simply whether to live or die but what kind of life is worth living.

Would you trade your ability – or your mother’s – to talk for a few extra months of mute life? The expansion of your visual blind spot in exchange for eliminating the small possibility of a fatal brain hemorrhage? Your right hand’s function to stop seizures? How much neurologic suffering would you let your child endure before saying that death is preferable? Because the brain mediates our experience of the world, any neurosurgical problem forces a patient and family, ideally with a doctor as a guide, to answer this question: What makes life meaningful enough to go on living?

Is life meaningful if you lose a part of what makes you, you? Is treating a patient to help them extend their life enough? Can help that requires sacrifice on the patient’s part be considered help? Patients may live on physically, but what about mentally/spiritually?

Mental well-being is equally as important as physical well-being.

Lastly, as a patient, Dr.Kalanithi realizes his need to find himself and his purpose as his future plans came to an abrupt halt.

My life had been building potential, potential that would now go unrealized. I had planned to do so much, and I had come so close. I was physically debilitated, my imagined future and my personal identity collapsed, and I face the same existential quandaries my patients faced.

My carefully planned and hard-won future no longer existed.

Like my own patients, I had to face my mortality and try to understand what made my life worth living.

His conclusion was to return to his roots: literature.

And so it was literature that brought me back to life during this time. The monolithic uncertainty of my future was deadening; everywhere I turned, the shadow of death obscured meaning of any action.I remember the moment when my overwhelming unease yielded, when that seemingly impassable sea of uncertainty parted. I woke up in pain, facing another day – no project beyond breakfast seemed tenable. “I can’t go on,” I thought, and immediately, its antiphon responded, completing Samuel Beckett’s seven words, words I had learned long ago in undergraduate: “I’ll go on.” I got out of bed and took a step forward, repeating the phrase over and over: “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”

Dr. Kalanithi concluded that living is about striving forward despite looming death. Struggling is a part of living; therefore he decided to “carry on living instead of dying.” 

It was with this realization that he and his wife also decided to have a child together. To continue living.

Dr. Paul Kalanithi died in March 2015, survived by his wife and 8-month old daughter. He did not get to finish writing, prior to being bed-ridden; however, his work lives on as an inspiration for others.

I wished to share one of the amazing aspects of the book that made me think more deeply about my life and my life choices. It certainly made me appreciate what I had a lot more, and overall was very humbling. Knowing that Dr.Kalanithi is not the first nor the last person facing such a big life crisis, I hope that I can keep myself together in my toughest moments, and also strive forward as he did and achieve my own success in my future endeavors.

About the author

Lazy Potato

Hello! I'm the Lazy Potato, a beginner blogger with an obsession for relaxation and comfort. This blog is dedicated to helping myself, and others unwind and find motivation.

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