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When Breath Becomes Air

Motivation creeps in on us at the most inconvenient times and inspiration comes from the strangest places. Plans often need altering as we try to tell ourselves to expect the unexpected.

No matter how much we prepare ourselves for the unpredictable thing called Life, we still find ourselves feeling lost; even if we studied the material in college and could put it into practice in our sleep.

Paul Kalanithi, son, brother, husband, father, neurosurgeon, and author of When Breath Becomes Air. A story that captures the brain of a neurosurgeon with the heart and soul of a great novelist. Kalanithi cracks his chest open and exposes his very personal thoughts on his declining health. He shows the vulnerable side of a surgeon who has faced death on a regular basis in a white coat, now experiencing it as a patient.

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When diagnosed with lung cancer, writing his memoir became the outlet for which Kalanithi to express not only the feelings he had while he fought his cancer, but also those pent up from seeing death as a doctor. This book allowed him to unload years of grappling with the strength of the inevitable – the death that is sure to come knocking.

“Our patients’ lives and identities may be in our hands, yet death always wins. Even if you are perfect, the world isn’t.”

Kalanithi introduces the readers to the person he is before the cancer and the person he becomes as a result. During the last 22 months of his life, he finished his residency as a neurosurgeon, became a father to his beautiful daughter, Cady and became physically weakened by a persistent and intrusive cancer.

As I read the book, I found myself in awe of such an intelligent and accomplished young man. I also found myself so affected by how real and seemingly “average” of a person he was. He studied both literature and medicine, interested in two different spectrums; struggling with choosing one career path. He spoke bluntly about his relationship problems instead of sweeping them under the rug. He spoke of the conflict in his life to show how the chaos creates the beauty and uniqueness that cannot be duplicated in any other life; how his was special because it will forever be his, even after his death.

When inspiration comes from the strangest places; when we are inspired to live in the face of death, or moreover, in the face of someone else’s. That is the story that Paul Kalanithi bittersweetly created. The story comes to a jarring end, as the reader truly begins to understand the power of his illness; how he relentlessly wrote up until it became physically impossible. The reader is left to feel like a witness to his decline and to the heartbreaking end; to not only a story, but to a life.

After his diagnosis, Kalanithi wrote his best friend a light-hearted e-mail.

“The good news is that I’ve already outlived two Brontës, Keats and Stephen Crane. The bad news is that I haven’t written anything.”

And so he did.

With a love of literature and medicine, Kalanithi was constantly searching for the meaning in life, and I’d like to believe that he found it in his last hours surrounded by his loving family.

“When there’s no place for the scalpel, words are the surgeon’s only tool.”

And thus, When Breath Becomes Air was written and used as a tool to honour his life, but also to inspire those who read it.

About the Author:

Natalie is a writer, yoga instructor and counselor of teenagers with mental health issues. A true believer that life hands us only lessons, she tries to find the medicine in all situations, poisonous or sweet.

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