When Breath becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi ~ Book Review & Discussion Guide

 

25614898

 

 

Published: January 12, 2016

Pages:228

Format:  E-book

 

 

 

This brief memoir is interposed between a foreword by Abraham Verghese, the brilliant author of Cutting for Stone and an epilogue by author’s wife, Lucy Kalanithi.  It is a beautiful, heartrending, deeply philosophical piece by an accomplished young man who dedicated heart and mind to his work and study in neurosurgery.  He discovers that he has terminal lung cancer at the age of 36, just before completing his grueling neurosurgical residency and embarking on the career he has worked so hard to attain.   The book is very thoughtful and reflective in nature, especially upon the meaning of life.  It made me wonder if the author was truly always so interested in finding the meaning of life, or if only when told of this terminal diagnosis, that reflection back on  his life made this search so apparent.  As one nears death, what is most important, becomes glaringly more obvious, and Paul Kalanithi describes this so well.

Abraham Verghese speaks in the foreword of how he had met Paul in person several times before his death, but it was not until he read his book that he felt  he really knew him.  I too, felt like I got to know Paul through this book.  He is very open and honest about himself, his sickness, his relationships, and struggles and triumphs throughout the process of dealing with cancer.

I find it interesting that Paul did not always think he wanted to be a physician, but rather thought he might be a writer.  He may not have realized his full potential as neurosurgeon and professor, but he surely achieved his goal to be a writer.  He has left behind a beautiful book that will be read for many years to come.  It will be of great interest to those with life-threatening disease, their family members, and really everyone, because we will all be in those shoes at some point.  He has also left behind a wonderful gift of himself to his daughter.  She will not remember her time with him, but she will be able to know him through this book and well as through the memories that I’m sure his close relations will share with her.  Aside from writing and even delving back into neurosurgery residency at one point, he spent the last years of his life following his diagnosis, building closer bonds with his family, and the love there was overflowing.

Aside from being an important read for anyone facing a life-threatening illness themselves or loving someone who is, I think it is a very important read for all medical professionals.  It puts a face behind a patient, who is clearly able to articulate the thoughts and feelings of being a patient in our medical system.  It emphasizes and highlights the importance of the physician-patient relationship.

I give this memoir images for it’s thought provoking, beautiful prose, as well as for writing it’s way through a death with utmost dignity.  He strengthens his belief systems, forges stronger relationships with family and loved ones, and finds greater meaning in life once he is given this terminal diagnosis.

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Stanford University neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi savors a moment with his daughter, Cady, earlier this year. Kalanithi, who had never smoked, was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2013. He died March 9 at the age of 37. Illustrates SURGEON-ESSAY (category l), by Paul Kalanithi , special to The Washington Post. Moved Friday, March 13, 2015. (MUST CREDIT: By Mark Hanlon/ Stanford University)
(MUST CREDIT: By Mark Hanlon/ Stanford University)

Discussion Questions:

  1.  What do you think is the meaning of life?  What makes life meaningful?  Are these two questions different?
  2. Paul says in his book, Darwin and Nietzsche agree that the defining characteristic of live is striving.  Do you agree?
  3. Why do think doctors sometimes lose sight of the doctor-patient relationship?
  4. How does terminal illness change Paul’s identity?
  5. If you were to die tomorrow, what meaning would your life have?
  6. Jeff kills himself because of a bad outcome.  Do you think we put too much responsibility upon physicians?
  7. Do you think the long hours that residents work is a good thing?  How does it affect the doctor-patient relationship and the quality of care?
  8. How do you think physicians are treated differently when treated for illnesses than people unknown to physicians?  Do you think there is a difference in the care they would receive?
  9. Lucy asks Paul at one point, “What are you most afraid of?”  He answers that it is leaving her.  What would you be most afraid of?
  10. How did you feel about Paul and Lucy’s decision to have a baby?
  11. What does “death with integrity” mean to you?

Paul Kalanithi’s website

New York Times Review

Discussion Questions by Random House

4 thoughts on “When Breath becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi ~ Book Review & Discussion Guide”

  1. Hi there! My name is Laura Bynum and my husband and I began our own authors’ blog a few months ago. We’ve had great success getting authors to come on our ‘program’ and read for us (we record authors reading about 5 minutes’ of their own work), but I’m just terrible about getting them much in the way of press for that time they gift to us. I thought I’d reach out and send you our url so you can take a look. Our latest offering is truly magical – Jacquelyn Mitchard reading a few pages of her upcoming novel, Two if by Sea. (And check out Edwidge Danticat’s as well; that woman is transportive.)

    We just wanted to invite other bloggers to share our content.

    Thank you, Laura Bynum

    http://www.wordsontheoutside.com

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