Tribute to Dr Paul Kalanithi – When Breath Becomes Air

This book moved me on so many different levels. I hope you will get a chance to experience the uplifting spirit of this book. By the time he reached his 30s, Dr Paul Kalanithi had achieved so much in his life. After graduating from Yale, where he studied medicine, he’d begun carving out a career as a neurosurgeon. At 36, he reached his final year as a neurosurgical resident and he was ready to take on whatever life might have in store for him.

Until he received the diagnosis.

Doctors told Kalanithi that he has terminal cancer. Suddenly, his whole sense of what life meant for him got thrown into the air. His purpose has always been to help others with his surgical skills. But as he faced the prospect of having that purpose torn away from him long before he’d achieved his full potential as a neurosurgeon, Kalanithi found himself re- evaluating in an effort to find what his new sense of purpose could be.

He focused his efforts on writing a memoir, When Breath Becomes Air, which was published posthumously. In this book, Kalanithi takes an almost poetic approach to unravelling his own identity and sense of purpose. He speaks beautifully about his work as a neurosurgeon and what he came to realise about his patients. There is one passage from the book that has always stuck out to me:

“Before operating on a patient’s brain, I realised, I must first understand his mind: his identity, his values, what makes his life worth living, and what devastation makes it reasonable to let that life end.”

These words resonate with my core belief that a person must first unravel their own identity before they can be of service to others. We must understand who we are and establish the core crux of our being to live our lives the way we’d like to live them. Kalanithi understood this on a level that few others do. Amazingly, his impending death helped him develop a deeper understanding of why he’d pursued his career in the first place. He returned to the operating room and continued working right up until the point where he was no longer physically able to continue.

In Dr Paul Kalanithi, we see a man so driven by his purpose of helping and understanding others that even his early death couldn’t stop him. And through his memoirs, we see the realisation of a new purpose.