When Breath Becomes Air is the impossibly beautiful story about the end of a gifted young life. This haunting and beautifully written metaphysical memoir seeks to understand the human condition, and its exploration of that question is equal parts Walt Whitman and Religio Medici. The story traces the life—and ultimate death—of Paul Kalanithi, MD, from a student at Stanford and Cambridge studying the philosophical intersection of human biology and literature, to Yale Medical School. Dr. Kalanithi was months from completing his neurosurgical residency when he was diagnosed with advanced stage lung cancer. In a matter of weeks, he was transformed from skilled surgeon with a promising career to patient grappling with a life-altering diagnosis.
As a neurosurgeon, Dr. Kalanithi worked on the brain (“the most critical place for human identity”) but in the shadow of his diagnosis, Dr. Kalanithi was forced to return to the philosophical question he once pursued as a student: what, in the face of death, makes life worth living? Dr. Kalanithi found the answer in his family, his work (which he described as “a calling”), and his writing. As he and his wife, also a doctor, prepared to become parents for the first time, his wife asked, “Don’t you think saying goodbye to your child will make your death more painful?” He replied, “Wouldn’t it be great if it did?”