BOOK REVIEW: When breath becomes air by Paul Kalanithi

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?

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This book is so heavy and profound in so many ways. Paul teaches us that in the face of death, one must choose what matters most in life. In his frail and weak state, Paul chooses to fight for his life.

It may have caused a lot of doubts but Paul enlightened each and everyone that the values and the important things continuously changes. I felt how painful it was for him to lose his identity. The once strong body that he has is now failing him to the point that the mere act of lifting his leg was too tiring for him. I think this is one of the hardest things to accept when you have a terminal or serious illness. — It’s the constant thought that you will never be able to go back to who you are, what you do and how others will perceive you. Your body will fail you, your mind will trick you. Everything will change.

He also mentioned how long and excruciating it is for doctors to deal with the fact that they hold responsibility for judgement calls. You know the famous spiderman line, With great power comes great responsibility? That is exactly the burden each doctor carries. Most of us are in awe of doctors. Some of us puts them in a pedestal. Why? because they have the power, skills and knowledge that can alter someone’s life. But that is also the burden that they carry everyday. It is the same power that saves lives, the same power that ends one, and never intentional.

With this revelation, I loved how he explained his personal commitment to treat each patient as individuals, not just charts. He made it to a point to know the patient, understand his life, his mind, his values and his identity. Why? So he knows how just how important it is for him to do the right thing, the right diagnosis, the right treatment, etc. — ‘In taking up another’s cross, one must sometimes be crushed by its weight’. It’s beautiful.

  • It’s very easy to be number one. Find the guy who is number one and score one point higher than he does.
  • Books became my closest confidants, finely ground lenses providing new views of the world.
  • Brains give rise to our ability to form relationships and make life meaningful.
  • Direct experience of life and death questions was essential to generating substantial moral opinions about them.
  • How could I ever learn to make and live with such judgement calls? I still had a lot of practical medicine to learn, but wold knowledge alone be enough? with life and death hanging in the balance? Surely intelligence wasn’t enough. Moral clarity is needed as well.
  • Some days, this is how it felt when I was in the hospital: trapped in an endless jungle summer, wet with sweat, the rain of tears of families of the dying pouring down.
  • Drowning, even in blood, one adapts, learns to float, to swim, even to enjoy life, bonding with the nurses and doctors who are clinging to the same raft, caught in the same tide.
  • A spoonful at a time. Openness to human relationality does not mean revealing grand truths from the apse, it means meeting patient’s where they are in the narthex or nave, and bringing them as far as you can.
  • The cost of my dedication to succeed is high, and the ineluctable failures brought me nearly unbearable guilt. Those burdens are what make medicine holy and wholly impossible, in taking up another’s cross, one must sometimes get crushed by the weight.
  • Good intentions were not enough, not when so much depended on my skills, when the difference between tragedy and triumph was defined by one or two millimetres.
  • Death comes for all of us. Most lives are lived with passivity toward death – it’s something that happens to you and those around you.
  • Even if you are perfect, the world isn’t. The secret is to know that the deck is stacked, that you will lose, that your hands or judgement will slip and yet still struggle to win for your patients. You can’t ever reach perfection, but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you are ceaselessly striving.
  • Severe illness wasn’t life-altering, it was life-shattering. It felt less like an epiphany – a piercing burst of light, illuminating what really matters – and more like someone had just firebombed the path forward. Now I would have to work around it.
  • The pain of knowing and not knowing the future, the difficulty in planning, the necessity of being there for each other.
  • If the weight of mortality does not grow lighter, does it at least get more familiar?
  •  The defining characteristic of the organism is striving.
  • The tricky part of illness is that, as you go through it, your values are constantly changing. You try to figure out what matters to you, and then you keep figuring it out. Death may be a one-time thing but living with a terminal illness is a process.
  • You can’t ever reach perfection, but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you are ceaselessly striving.

Overall, this book is a really good read. It’s scary and honest. 

Have you read this book? I really liked this one. Could you recommend a similar book? If you like this post, can you please like, comment and subscribe to my blog? ❤ I’ll appreciate it. Thank you! 

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