“I began to realize that coming in such close contact with my own mortality had changed both nothing and everything.”
Paul Kalanithi, from When Life Becomes Air
Welcome to Healthy Matters Book Club! This is the first of what I hope will be many posts in which I will explore a health & medicine book that I have read and found interesting . I’m not a book critic and this is not a thorough book review – just a couple of my thoughts. I hope you will read it and join the conversation by leaving a comment below or perhaps joining me on Twitter @DrDavidHilden. Plus, I’m hoping you will leave me book discussion suggestions in the comments – I’m always looking for a good read!
Today’s Book: When Breath Becomes Air
Re-read the quote at the top of this post. It is a pretty good summary of When Breath Becomes Air, the recent book from Dr. Paul Kalanithi. I strongly recommend the book to you – it is a quick read – just a few hours – but it is gripping.
Dr. Kalanithi died in March 2015 and the book is a memoir of his last months of life. An accomplished neurosurgeon and a rising star in the medical community, Paul Kalanithi learned of a terminal diagnosis when he was just 35 years old. Also a talented writer who was initially torn between a career in medicine or as a writer, he set out to chronicle his life knowing that he would not live a great deal longer. He is a terrific writer and his prose is quite lyrical – almost poetic to the degree that some may find a bit much – and I found it brilliant.
Paul writes with an intimacy rarely seen in books by doctors. Neurosurgeons, fairly or not, are not known for their sensitive sides. But in this case, the surgeon becomes the patient and is faced with what he knows in his mind and in his gut – that he has a disease from which he will certainly die. He knew it the instant he looked at his own CT scan. This unnerved me a bit as I can imagine any of my colleagues facing the same situation in which we look at our own medical results and know a bit too much what it means for us.
When I was reading the book, I couldn’t escape the knowledge that the writer has already died and is really speaking from the grave. Made me pause more than once or twice.
But it is a great read even if you are not a doctor. Maybe even more so, as it gives you an unfiltered glimpse into the mind of a brain surgeon with a soft spot for poetry. You really feel like you get to know him. And just as great is that you get to meet Lucy, his wife, who seems to me an incredible person.
Throughout the reading I couldn’t escape the knowledge that Lucy and their infant daughter are still here – real people, alive and carrying on their lives. To me Lucy is as fascinating as her husband and her epilogue is as poignant as her husband’s writing. Now about one year after his death, she has found herself doing something she probably didn’t imagine just 2-3 years ago – she’s on a book tour for her late husband.
Here’s an interview she did on National Public Radio that I encourage you to listen to:
“Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.”
This oft-quoted bit of wisdom by Gandhi was realized by Dr. Kalanithi during his lifetime. After his awful diagnosis, he continued to practice surgery, continued to read, continued to write, continued to love, continued to learn, and continued to reflect on what is important in life. He indeed was acting as if he may well live forever.
But he also acted as if he may die tomorrow which for him was not an abstract concept but a real possibility. One aspect of their lives that gets my thoughts all tied up in knots is their decision to have a baby, knowing that he would not live to see their child grow up. Here is an exchange from the book:
“Will having a newborn distract from the time we have together?” she asked. “Don’t you think saying goodbye to your child will make your death more painful?”
“Wouldn’t it be great if it did?” I said. Lucy and I both felt that life wasn’t about avoiding suffering.”
Can you imagine having such a conversation when thinking about having a child? Holy cow. Listen to the audio clip above to hear Lucy say more about this.
Join the discussion!
What would you do if you knew you had a very limited amount of time to live? Would you continue to work at whatever you do? Would you drop everything and try something new? What would you do if you were Lucy – his spouse? Are you a “live-for-the-moment” type or a “planner for the future” type? Maybe a little of both?
So now it’s your turn. Read the book and leave a comment below with your reactions. I’d love to hear your thoughts!
Also, if you have read a health/wellness/medical book that you’d like to recommend – leave me a comment right here on the blog (in the comments section below). Can be fiction or non-fiction. Maybe we can discuss it on a future post on the Healthy Matters Book Club!