by Marni Amsellem, Ph.D.
If you have an appreciation for both the fragility as well as the humanity of the brain, you will want to read Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air. More accurately, if you HAVE a brain (and we all do), you will want to read this book. This book is remarkable for many reasons. It is a breathtakingly honest account of what it means to be told you are dying but have not fulfilled your vision for your life. It is a narrative describing what it is like to evolve and work toward your professional calling. It conveys what is like experience sudden role reversal, from a doctor to a patient. The author describes the process of coming to terms with a life expiration well before its rightful time and how it affects his relationships with loved ones and future decision-making. Paul Kalanithi’s book inspires and is a must-read for so many reasons.
As Paul advanced in his education and training, he found his calling in neurosurgery. His passion for neurosurgery was inspired by his fascination with how the brain is at the core of the identity of an individual. He elucidates the challenges faced by those who have had an alteration in their brain and the consequential shift in who they become as a person. He describes the consequences of a single decision he faces in surgery shaping the course of patient’s life, as well as the response they receive from others in their lives. The reader is offered a rare glimpse into the sensitivity and specificity of neurosurgery and the long-term implications of a decision while in surgery.
It struck me while reading Paul Kalanithi’s book that his reflections about performing brain surgery and the patients with whom he worked offered tremendous insight. The insights were both specific to his experiences, but reached beyond his own experiences extending into the effects of the brain injury/ condition for the person or family affected.