When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi—Life Lessons

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What is the book When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, and what is it about?

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi recounts the life of Dr. Paul Kalanithi, a neurosurgeon diagnosed with lung cancer during his last year of residency. With elegant and beautiful prose befitting a novelist more than a doctor, the When Breath Becomes Air author guides readers through his life before and after his diagnosis, a life marked by a search for understanding life, death, and meaning. 

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As a young man, Paul never considered becoming a doctor, a profession many in his family had chosen. Thanks to his mother’s determination to see her three sons surpass the boundaries that a rural education in Kingman, Arizona could provide, she instilled in them a love of books. Paul quickly became enraptured by literature and decided to follow that love through his undergraduate and graduate studies at Stanford University.

Along the way, Paul also became fascinated with the brain. He wanted to understand how this organism was involved in creating meaning in life. Therefore, coinciding with his literature studies, he also studied biology. These two passions would guide the rest of his life. Through literature, he wanted to find language that gave depth to human experiences. Through science, he wanted to find the boundary separating life from death and what constituted each. When words became insufficient, he decided to enroll in medical school to become a neurosurgeon.

Throughout When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, he takes us on his journey through medical school and into his practical training as a neurosurgical resident. He walks us through his work with patients, learning, sometimes the hard way, that there was more to being a doctor than merely diagnosing and treating. He became a beacon for his patients, providing a safe harbor for them to traverse the transition from the life they had to whatever lay on the other side after a traumatic brain injury or disease. 

Paul’s work allowed him to face death on a daily basis. He didn’t view death as an enemy to be thwarted. Rather, he saw it as one side of the coin of life and often as the most humane decision for those whose lives would never be the same because of their diagnosis. In approaching death in this way, he was able to face his diagnosis of lung cancer with integrity. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi chronicles that search for integrity and meaning.

When he was diagnosed, Paul learned the difference between facing death as a doctor and as a patient. Although he’d assisted patients and their families in learning how to move forward and forge a new life or accept the end of life, he wasn’t clear at first what his new life would be. His identity, a concept he cherished and used to guide his treatment of patients, was wrapped up in the future he’d planned with his wife, Lucy. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi also details how they faced a new future together.

As that future slowly disintegrated, he had to determine who he could and should be with the time he had left. Should he dive into the personal and spend the time with family, friends, and his new child? Should he move into a teaching role? Or should he be a neurosurgeon again? In the end, his calling as a neurosurgeon won out, and he continued that work until his cancer relapsed and ended his career for good.

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi is about his personal journey of discovery as much as it is a dissertation on what it means to live and die. He believed that human relationships and experiences gave life purpose and depth, and he strove to celebrate both in his life and the life of his patients. The legacy Paul left behind exemplifies the strength and wisdom possible in accepting the inevitability of death and living despite it. 

Posthumous Publication of When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

The final pages of the When Breath Becomes Air book are written by Paul’s wife, Lucy. She describes how Paul died on March 9, 2015, in the hospital with his loved ones by his side. Cady was eight months old. 

Although the When Breath Becomes Air book by Paul Kalanithi was not complete when he died, Lucy sees the correlation with his unfinished life. The book, like Paul, did not get the time it deserved.When Breath Becomes Air book over the last year, writing with fervor every chance he had. He wrote while he was still finishing his residency. He wrote at night in bed. He wrote while waiting for his doctor appointments. He wrote and communicated with his editor while receiving chemotherapy. 

Like the final year of his life, When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi carries a sense of urgency. There was a desire to communicate everything he’d learned as a doctor and patient about life, death, and meaning under a ticking clock counting down the minutes until he could say no more. He couldn’t help people as a doctor anymore, but he still wanted to guide them through that threshold he’d helped so many walk through. 

As he’d done for most of his life, the When Breath Becomes Air author examines mortality and what it means to live with meaning. He wanted to face his mortality with grace, and he wanted to help others do the same.

Paul’s ability to meet death and accept it allowed him to have courage and integrity throughout his illness. Rather than fighting against reality or praying for a Hail Mary, he mourned the life he knew was out of reach and did his best to recreate something else in its place. Even when the illness was breaking his body down, his spirit was never broken. He sought meaning in what was left of his life.

Lucy knows that if Paul had survived, he would have contributed greatly to his field and medicine as a whole. Whenever she sees the hospital where he worked, where their daughter was born, and where he died, she thinks of all the people he would have helped. But in being the When Breath Becomes Air author, she knows he will still contribute, still help, in a way that is uniquely Paul.

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi is a unique and touching memoir that explores the ideas of life and death, and how we choose to live our life in the face of adversity matters.

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi—Life Lessons

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best summary of Dr. Paul Kalanithi's "When Breath Becomes Air" at Shortform .

Here's what you'll find in our full When Breath Becomes Air summary :

  • How Paul Kalanithi discovered he had cancer
  • How Paul coped with his cancer until his very end
  • How Paul's wife dealt with his death and found the strength to continue

Carrie Cabral

Carrie has been reading and writing for as long as she can remember, and has always been open to reading anything put in front of her. She wrote her first short story at the age of six, about a lost dog who meets animal friends on his journey home. Surprisingly, it was never picked up by any major publishers, but did spark her passion for books. Carrie worked in book publishing for several years before getting an MFA in Creative Writing. She especially loves literary fiction, historical fiction, and social, cultural, and historical nonfiction that gets into the weeds of daily life.

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