Reading List: When Breath Becomes Air

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It takes very little to make me cry. Ever since I was young I have been prone to cry. When I’m sad, when I’m angry, when I’m happy, I will cry. I cry at videos of wedding proposals, when soldiers surprise their families, at sad movies, or even when other people cry. I do not, however, usually cry when I read a sad book.

I probably chose the wrong time to read this book (during clinic) because I was crying at my desk as I finished this book.

I believe there is a sense of invincibility that comes with being a physician (or even a future physician). Doctors delay death, cure disease, conquer the natural processes of life and death. As a scribe and a pre-med, I witness the work of my providers every day. That may be why the death of our patients hits us so hard. The death of a physician seems that much more unimaginable.

Dr. Kalanithi was not only a physician, but a lover of the written word. He was so enraptured with the thin line between life and death. Stricken with cancer, he got to understand that border more intimately than most. Then he put pen to the page and wrote this moving book about the

I was struck by two parts of the book in particular. The first was Dr. Kalanithi’s oncologist. Her focus was only on her patient’s goals. The ultimate end was never the discussion until it was truly the end. She wanted her patient to focus on living, even if his time was limited. I admired the way she spoke with him, even if he was frustrated as a physician. Granted (in my experience), neurosurgeons have a tendency to be a bit more upfront with expectations. I believe it was his onocologist’s approach to discussing his condition that let him live his life to its fullest before the end.

The other was the timing of his illness. An extremely unexpected illness in a young man in the final year of his residency. After medical school, after nearly seven years of a grueling neurosurgery residency, he was cut off. It’s baffling. As pre-meds we always look toward the light at the end of the tunnel. We struggle through the pre-reqs, the MCAT, the applications. Then we fight through school and matching to get to residency. This is all in the hopes that one day we will obtain that final goal: the attending. After all of Dr. Kalanithi’s hard work, to be cut off from that last step seems completely unfair.

But death isn’t fair. It doesn’t always make sense. And Dr. Kalanitihi is sharing that with us. Read this to understand your patients’ perspectives. Read this to try and glean an understanding of life as well as death. Whatever you do, just read this book.





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