When Breath Becomes Air

By Gray, J. A. | First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life, June/July 2016 | Go to article overview

When Breath Becomes Air


Gray, J. A., First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life


When Breath Becomes Air BY PAUL KALANITHI RANDOM HOUSE, 256 PAGES, $25

Paul Kalanithi was a Stanford neurosurgery resident who at age thirty-six was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer. "I had mapped out this whole forty-year career for myself-the first twenty as a surgeon-scientist, and the last twenty as a writer." Terminal cancer moved the writing forward on his calendar. At age thirty-seven, in March 2015, he died, leaving a wife (also a doctor), an eight-month-old daughter, and this book, which was published in January 2016.

One first hears the voice of the neurosurgeon: "I tacked back the dura with small stitches to keep it out of the way of the main surgery. The brain gently pulsed and glistened... . The familiar peach convolutions of the brain beckoned." Then there is his voice as a patient with a terminal diagnosis: "Standing at the crossroads where I should have been able to see and follow the footprints of the countless patients I had treated over the years, I instead saw only a blank, a harsh, vacant, gleaming white desert, as if a sandstorm had erased all trace of familiarity. …

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