Paul Kalanithi – Portrait of the Doctor as a Patient

We always think of doctors as some kind of superheroes, they can never be wrong, they must know everything about our pains and illnesses, but most of all, doctors never get sick. Or do they? What if what we think of them is not at all true? What if the white robes aren’t the capes worn by superheroes, but proofs that the doctors are blank canvases on which the patients are writing their own stories? Paul Kalanithi, a neurosurgeon, was such a canvas until he was diagnosed with lung cancer. Totally aware of the inevitable ending, he decided to write a book. When Breath becomes Air is a story of life, death and how to fight an illness – the doctor’s way.

Little did Paul know as a child about life and other things, but what he knew for certain was that he would never be a doctor. Literature was by far more appealing than any other thing this life could offer. His father a doctor, Kalanithi knew that medicine is absence and time spent in the hospital, so he decided that he was going to be a writer. It all changed when literature brought a discovery: if the mind is simply an operation of the brain, then, by studying the brain, we can find out what is the meaning of life. Then and there was the moment when Kalanithi decided to become a neurosurgeon.

I was driven less by achievement than by trying to understand, in earnest: What makes human life meaningful? I still felt literature provided the best account of the life of the mind, while neuroscience laid down the most elegant rules of the brain.

Kalanithi has been through so much in his training as a neurosurgeon: he has witnessed patients dying or recovering, he has brought the happiest of news and also the saddest. Initially, on a quest to discover the meaning of life, by practicing medicine, Kalanithi came upon something far greater than expected – he has found the paths towards the others.

If the unexamined life was not worth living, was the unlived life worth examining?

Far from being a literary revelation, When Breath becomes Air is exceptional because it tells both sides of the same story. Doctors often see humans in their most vulnerable and intimate moments. They are the ones escorting us into this world and then back out. Thereby, medicine is more than just intricate terms, illnesses and death, it has moral and philosophical implications, and it is multi-valent.

Paul Kalanithi

As Kalanithi experienced it, a medical career is more than pure study – it is a calling and a process that brings one closer to others.

We often forget the presence of others while doctors can never do that. Reading this book is also the key to new and unexpected knowledge: you get to know disorders and facts you couldn’t even imagine, let alone thought they exist. For example, did you know that shocking news can produce an electric short of the brain? Or that the inability to see faces is a neurologic disorder called prosopagnosia? And most of all, did it occure to you that sadness is produced by the brain? Well, it is –  it takes just a stimulus put on one single spot on the brain to trigger a deep feeling of sadness.

Maybe the experience of having so many patients and seeing so many lives falling apart under the weight of illness have helped Paul Kalanithi overcome the diagnosis and decide that he will live to the fullest until his death. He and his wife welcomed their first child, as Kalanithi continued to save lives and to concentrate on the things he wanted to get done before the end of his life.

Paul Kalanithi’s breath became air far too rapidly – he died before even finishing his book (the task devolved to his wife who wrote the epilog), but the lesson he taught the world was by far more important than any written word:

We are never as wise as when we live in this moment.


Even if you are perfect, the world isn’t.

Ştefana Bostan

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© 2017 Agata Asofroniei