When Breath Become Air by Paul Kalanithi: A Review

10/26/2016 12:38 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

There came a moment when the slow accretion of small health issues became something intractable, something I couldn't ignore. My husband said, "Go to the doctor." He insisted that I make an appointment with a doctor we both knew as thorough, creative, and aggressive in her approach.

A battery of tests ensued: blood tests, more than twenty vials drawn at a time; CT scans, an MRI. I feared the worst: a brain tumor. I thought about how I would cope, how I would take care of my eleven-year-old daughter, and if I would follow traditional Western medical protocols or the way of the healer. I was once a hands-on healer, an energy healer, and I have a close friend, also a healer, who had healed herself of a brain tumor.

The doctor phoned as I was leaving an art opening. She said, "You have Lyme Disease."

Lyme Disease is no picnic, and many people suffer for years with pain and fatigue, cognitive impairment and joint pain and Lyme carditis. But it was treatable. It was potentially curable.

I started reading When Breath Becomes Air on a plane and I remembered those moments between the tests and the diagnosis, the moments fraught with dread and fear and hope and even the sense that I was malingering, that I was fine and wasting everyone's time with all these tests. It was a time of re-evaluating, re-considering, re-orienting myself to a potentially devastating diagnosis.

Dr. Paul Kalanithi was a neurosurgical resident entering his final year of training when he was diagnosed with cancer. The prologue of his book When Breath Becomes Air (Kalanithi, Paul. 2016. When Breath Becomes Air. London: Vintage Publishing) opens with him in a hospital room with his wife, wearing not surgical scrubs but a patient's gown, reading his CT scans. He knew exactly what the scans showed. 2016-10-26-1477498728-4928124-kalanithi.jpg

The memoir goes on to chronicle his journey, beginning with his boyhood, the son of a Christian doctor who had eloped from southern India with Kalanithi's mother, who was Hindu. The family left Bronxville, New York to move to Kingman, Arizona when Kalanithi was young.

At the time, the Kingman school system was located in the least educated district in America, according to the U.S. census. Kalanithi's mother took action, both in the school and at home. She obtained a "college prep reading list" and insisted that her children work through it. Kalanithi credits that with his lifelong love of language.

His love of language is everywhere in evidence throughout the book. This is a beautifully written, poignant, haunting story of a preternaturally intelligent and sensitive man exploring his own impending death. Kalanathi wasn't just a brilliant, talented neurosurgeon--he was also a deeply thoughtful and empathic man who was concerned with that nebulous area where science and medicine and morality and meaning intersect. He didn't just document the stages of his inexorable transit toward death, he questioned them deeply.

I couldn't help but feel sad that the world had been deprived of a surgeon of Kalanithi's caliber. It's a terrible shame that all his training and his skill went with him. There's an urgent need for doctors like him. Even worse is the loss of his person. His memoir reveals a fullness, a sumptuousness of presence that would have blessed everyone who came into connection with him. People like Kalanithi are lights and this world needs that luminosity.

As he underwent treatment, Kalanithi frequently asked himself what was important in his life. He looked at what he valued. He delved into the changes in his identity and how he segued from subject of his own life to object of cancer and back. He confronted the choice to have a child, and he and his wife did so.

Because his consciousness is so precise and so exquisite, his journey is harrowing. Reading his book is no quick joy ride; it's an experience that leaves a splendid residue in the reader's mind.

I finished the book and thought how lucky I was. I "only" had Lyme disease. For me, doxycycline was hard on my system but effective. The health issues that had impelled me to the doctor were resolving. A friend had recommended herbs that tempered the Lyme die-off, which can be profound.

Reading Kalanithi's memoir at this time in my life was an unexpected gift. It opened a door in my mind, the way great art does. It left me thinking about my good luck and the preciousness of my life. I have the sense of a re-committing to my own purpose, to my own path. I am grateful.