Sunday Book Review – When Breath Becomes Air by Dr. Paul Kalanithi

My Sunday Book Review is for When Breath Becomes Air – A story of courage about the life of Dr. Paul Kalanithi, a neurosurgeon in his prime, just finishing his medical residency when he’s faced with the fatal blow of an almost certain death sentence when diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. Nonfiction.





At the age of thirty-six, on the verge of completing a decade’s worth of training as a neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. One day he was a doctor treating the dying, and the next he was a patient struggling to live. And just like that, the future he and his wife had imagined evaporated. When Breath Becomes Air chronicles Kalanithi’s transformation from a naïve medical student “possessed,” as he wrote, “by the question of what, given that all organisms die, makes a virtuous and meaningful life” into a neurosurgeon at Stanford working in the brain, the most critical place for human identity, and finally into a patient and new father confronting his own mortality.

What makes life worth living in the face of death? What do you do when the future, no longer a ladder toward your goals in life, flattens out into a perpetual present? What does it mean to have a child, to nurture a new life as another fades away? These are some of the questions Kalanithi wrestles with in this profoundly moving, exquisitely observed memoir.

Paul Kalanithi died in March 2015, while working on this book, yet his words live on as a guide and a gift to us all. “I began to realize that coming face to face with my own mortality, in a sense, had changed nothing and everything,” he wrote. “Seven words from Samuel Beckett began to repeat in my head: ‘I can’t go on. I’ll go on.’” When Breath Becomes Air is an unforgettable, life-affirming reflection on the challenge of facing death and on the relationship between doctor and patient, from a brilliant writer who became both.

#1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • PULITZER PRIZE FINALIST • This inspiring, exquisitely observed memoir finds hope and beauty in the face of insurmountable odds as an idealistic young neurosurgeon attempts to answer the question What makes a life worth living?

NAMED ONE OF PASTE’S BEST MEMOIRS OF THE DECADE • NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY The New York Times Book Review • People • NPR • The Washington Post • Slate • Harper’s Bazaar • Time Out New York • Publishers Weekly • BookPage

Finalist for the PEN Center USA Literary Award in Creative Nonfiction and the Books for a Better Life Award in Inspirational Memoir


My 4 Star Review:

This is the memoir of Dr. Paul Kalanithi who takes us along his journey as he recants and examines his life leading up to his becoming a neurosurgeon and neuro-scientist. Less than a year left to finishing his 10-year surgical residency, he is given the fatal diagnosis of Stage IV lung cancer, and this is when his originally intent memoir on his studies and how his path in life led him to wanting him to become a neurosurgeon, became a different story – more about his determination to continue his studies and being a surgeon, now focused on the life-altering decisions he had to make and the disease taking away parts of him as the story progresses.

We follow Dr. Paul’s remainder of his life throughout his treatments, philosophies and decisions until his last ‘breath of air’, which if not had been cut short, I’m convinced he may have become one of the world reknowned neurosurgeons of our time, had the Big ‘C’ not rocked his world and everything he worked hard to reach hitting at the pinnacle of his career.

This is the story about a man, a doctor, who became ‘the patient’ who knew despite the possible miracles that could happen that his diagnosis meant the clock was now ticking on his life, and shares his story with us about what he’d do for the remainder of his time while hope still floated, but common sense lurked inside him as he stoically accepted his demise.

We learn a bit about his world, his work, his marriage and the decision to have a child despite the edict. We’re taken into his world of medicine, life and death decisions he made, and his journey of hope until his ultimate death.

Dr. Paul prepared his whole life to become a neurosurgeon, but always with a passion for literature and an undeniable desire to also become a writer – something he’d planned on doing in later decades in his life after he would finish being a surgeon. But future plans now became the present with possible limited time to fit in a lifetime of desires. Writing and children became a topic to be dealt with in the now, no longer the future.

Dr. Paul continued to write this book throughout his treatments and illness to leave something behind – his life story as his legacy. He died before it was finished, and his wife Lucy wrote the epilogue. His determination to keep writing though, was relentless as was his vigor to live – “Even if I’m dying, until I actually die, I’m still living.” With so many questions and decisions to be made, Dr. Paul shared his confliction in life as he had only another year to go to finish his surgical residency.  He wondered if he should continue to live life through optimism for a cure or continue his work, start a family and prepare for certain death.

I’d classify this book as part memoir as I felt the initial intent was to journal his life to becoming a doctor, which then turned to more of a soul-searching with reflections and platitudes and a need to perhaps ‘hurry it along’ as his illness progressed. And to be honest, I thought his wife’s epilogue was the most beautiful part of the book. As a compassionate human being myself, I was moved by the story and the miraculous man Dr. Paul. But as a writer myself, I felt the pace and a bit of a directional change midway through the book as well as important gaps – mainly emotion, which I couldn’t get a feel for from this doctor. I felt a bit distanced as I read the book, not all consumed because despite the horrific death sentence and Dr. Paul’s lifetime of work, I felt he didn’t reveal enough of himself or emotions to invite me in to his character, hence, the 4 stars.


What the Dying Want Us to Know About Living


I was compelled to share this most beautiful post I came across from Purple Clover . It’s a wonderful article reminding us all to take a moment and savor the small moments in life, as told by a dying woman.


We all get overwhelmed with our busy life and schedules trying to keep up, and sometimes tend to rush things we find insignificant at the moment, but turn out to be poignant parts of our lives we look back on. Please enjoy the article.


What the Dying Want Us to Know about Living:


“I was always in a hurry. Hurrying. Always. For what?” She took a deep breath, and gently said it one more time, “Always in a hurry ….”

What left me astonished and teary-eyed was not the surprise of her hating the picture, but that these words were exactly the ones my grandmother had spoken to me on the morning of her own passing. I had been sitting vigil at her bedside and she was growing weaker with each day in the hospital. Stroking her hand, I spoke softly to her, “Abuela. Abuela, do you hear me? Remember when you would take us to the grocery store across the street from our house at the start of every summer, and you began our first day of vacation with a popsicle?”


“Smiling, with her eyes still closed, she quietly answered, “I would tell you all to hurry, make your flavor choices, and to hurry. There was much to do. I would let you take your time choosing now, if I could. Things could have waited.” 

“Death teaches us not to rush past the things we’ll wish we had more of at the very end of life Continue Reading


Source: What the Dying Want Us to Know About Living 

The Haze


As we watched you sleep, far in distance, in another sphere,our own thoughts took us somewhere to a place in our hearts where we held you dear.

I cannot help but wonder where your thoughts went in your silent slumber, and if you weren’t fully aware when you came back for sporadic moments.

Perhaps you were caught in the realm  between two worlds. Your body ached to go to that world of comfort, yet your soul reminded you to check in with the living whom surrounded you.

Were you waiting for the proverbial phrase, “It’s okay to let you go?” Were we the selfish in withholding those words in last efforts to cling on to your every breath?

I was weak and found I could not utter those words, although silently, I prayed for your release.

What were you thinking? What did you wish to say when I watched your dire efforts on occasion to speak, while in concentrated efforts I struggled to decipher your words?

Dad held your hand in your final moments, surrounded by the family who loves you. You waited, fighting for each breath so everyone could be there to send you off with love.

Sleep in peace little girl and leave your worries behind, for we shall take care for you as you journey toward heaven.


The journey was long as we watched you suffer. The first day of spring came, and with it came more snow and frigid temperatures.

The next day came and after so long, the sun shone through your window. The winds had calmed and so had your pain. Only hours later you were taken in the still of the calm and with our tears.

Yesterday we laid you to rest. Once again the sun shined bright and although still cold, the air was calm.

We left you at your final resting place and as the priest read us words of solace, the wind picked up in a furious cycle and a swirling blizzard suddenly blew from the sky, bringing with it a rapid drop in temperature.

We were already numb with grief, yet that chilling snowstorm had us all shivering to the bone. I turned to Dad and said, “That was our girl going out in a flurry, the same way she had lived her life.”

We drove off in the limo and within a half hour, the sky had cleared, the winds had passed, the snow no longer shed its sadness and the sun reappeared.



DGKaye ©2014