In the book When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, reading about who Paul is and his journey leading up to now, I found that he is now in his fourth year of medical school being a Neurosurgeon. Paul Stated, “I was compelled by neurosurgery, with its unforgiving call to perfection; like the ancient Greek concept arete,ai thought virtue required moral, emotional mental and physical excellence, Neurosurgery seemed to present the most challenging and direct confrontation wit meaning, identity and death” (Kalanithi 71,72). He learned a lot in school, realizing that he needed to not only learn how to be a surgeon but it was more to it than just learning, he had to train his mind, his hands, essentially his whole being to be a surgeon.
Paul talks about his journey through medical school but he also talks about moments in his life that are important milestones like marriage to his wife Lucy. They both went to medical school together, he talks about his relationships with his co residents and the moments that brought them closer because of their journey. Their journeys were all similar, yet very different. Spending hours at a time at their hospitals they attended residency at, “ The schedule took a toll. As residents, we were working as much as one-hundred hours a week; though regulations officially capped our hours at eighty-hours, there was always more work to be done” (Kalanithi 79). Working what seemed to be endless hours as a doctor in training Paul explained how much pressure it was to be in that position and not all the residents could handle the pressure and the toll it took on them.
Being a physician is a completely different experience than being a patient. Although many emotions and feelings are involved in both parties, I wanted to relate the two Kendi mentions, “ On speakerphone, the doctor said Sadiqa had invasive breast cancer” (Kendi 228). This stuck out to me because I too have had to give test results or bad news to a patient before and being the “bare of bad news” is not the best feeling. It takes a strong minded individual to have the compassion and power in their heart to tell a patient that type of news. Paul had to express the bad news to a lot of his patients. He mentions, “ As a resident, ,my highest ideal was not saving lives– everyone dies eventually– but guiding a patient or family to an understanding of death or illness” (Kalanithi 86).
Something that stood out to me was moments when Paul was in surgery to mention specific details of his patients before operating. Paul Mentions, “Before operating on a patient’s brain, I realized, I must first understand his mind; his identity, his values, what makes his life worth living, and what devastation makes it reasonable to let that life end” (Kalanithi 98). These are things you don’t think about when it comes to surgery, Paul in order to be a surgeon you needed to excel in other fields as well. So that could mean they needed to not just focus on neurosurgery. In Paul’s case he participated in the Lab at Stanford.
He met someone in the Lab by the name of “V”,he was the head of the lab and was 7 years older than him, he became like a brother to Paul. V’s lab had become a” world leader in reading brain signals”. Paul mentioned, “V was not like the other scientists. He was soft spoken, and cared deeply about people and the clinical mission, and he often confessed to me that he wished he’d been a surgeon himself” (Kalanithi 100). Paul decided to put surgery to the side and focus on gene therapy and reading brain signals, it still had something to do with the brain, but was a different aspect of the brain. Building a solid foundation both personally and professionally, V stated, “I need you to wear your doctor hat right now, they tell me I have pancreatic cancer” (Kalanithi 100). This goes to show, cancer doesn’t have an agenda, you can be a renowned scientist, a newlywed wife like Kendis wife, Kendi or you can be a neurosurgeon like Paul. Kendi mentions, “I have cancer. The most serious stage. Cancer is likely to kill me. I can survive cancer against all odds… I prepared myself to fight. I looked past what could harm me in the fight to see all that could bring me joy if I survived” (Kendi 235).
Paul’s tone in the book is very descriptive and he is speaking with compassion and discusses his journey of life from when he was a boy growing up, to going to college, then attending medical school, getting married ect. All of which he is describing specific events that would lead him to where he is today. The purpose of his book is to tell about his journey in his life and the hardships he endured as a surgeon as well as a son, student and doctor. He talks about certain relationships and the position the other person played in his life and in his journey. The book does not use titles as chapters, i found that he does not have any chapters in each book, the story flows all in parts.
Kalanithi, Paul, and Abraham Verghese. When Breath Becomes Air. 1st ed., Random House, 2016.
Kendi, Ibram X. How to Be an Antiracist. Penguin Random House, 2020.