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My Key Takeaways from When Breath Becomes Air

Ishan Sharma
November 6th, 2022 · 3 min read

This is apparently going to be my first blog about a book. It’s less of a review and rather a reflection of some of my thoughts & learnings, after I have finished listening to the book “When Breath becomes Air” by Paul Kalanithi.

It has been a few days since I listened to this audiobook, but the numbness reappears the instant I allow the narrator’s voice to unfold in my memory.

During his last year of medical residency at Stanford, Paul learned that he had terminal cancer. With less than 2 years left to him, and despite being so debilitated by cancer, Paul wrote this moving and thoughtful memoir.

Here’s my key takeaway from this book :

Appreciating what’s truly important

Dr. Paul was on the way to completing his long journey from being a medical student to a professor of neurosurgery, after 10 years of training in residency. Grinding himself for hours and hours, every single day had earned him the respect from his colleagues, a lot of naitonal awards and as well as job offers from a lot of universities.

However, at the end even before he could graduate from his residency, it didn’t really matter anymore, since he was diagnosed with Stage IV metastatic lung cancer and his health was on a rapid decline. Even though, he finally got an offer for a job he always wanted to get into, he ended up refusing it. The takeaway for me is that

Sometimes you just need to go with your heart

and do what you think is right, despite what others say. In many situations, there are no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answers.

"The tricky part of illness is that, as you go through it, your values are constantly changing. You try to figure out what matters to you, and then you keep figuring it out…You may decide you want to spend your time working as a neurosurgeon, but two months later, you may feel differently. Two months after that, you may want to learn to play the saxophone or devote yourself to the church."

Life is short. We are all entitled to something, but our happiness shouldn’t depend on what we get. Although, we go about most days not thinking about our inevitable death. It might not be a pleasant thing to dwell on, but maybe if we did we would try to live more meaningful lives. Maybe we would spend less time working and more time with family, helping others or doing what we truly love.

Paul’s story reminded me of inactions to my loved ones upon reflection, and is something I’d definetely would like to improve in the upcoming months.

Despite experiencing severe back pains and dissipating strength, Paul kept writing his story until the very end. He gave his all, documenting his journey as much as he could, but it was an unfinished manuscript that was left behind. Although it was unfinished work, it was his very best.

In the face of death, there is always a choice of “fight or flight”. Some might simply accept their fate, giving in to their illnesses and live their remaining days in sadness. Some might live in denial, wasting their days away. But Dr. Kalanithi gave his very best, until his final breath. He was determined to write his story and make the best out of the time he had left. He approached death gracefully and never allowed it to defeat him. Dr. Kalanithi left a story, a legacy for millions of people around the world. Despite his death, he is still making an impact on the lives of many, living in their minds and remembered in their hearts.

There’s even more to this small but powerful book—his thoughts on science and religion are timely and important, for one thing, and anyone who has had much interaction with the healthcare system will appreciate the reminder that doctors bear a heavy burden (and some actually care about patients as people, not paperwork! What a concept.). Paul’s writing is clear and moving without being sentimental, witty without being self-conscious or esoteric.

After all of this, Listening to Lucy’s epilogue at the end was very difficult for me, much more than Paul’s account in fact, because Lucy vividly portrays the last moments before Paul’s death. Even if you do not know the person, it is incredibly hard to listen about another fellow human being’s death. But hearing more about Paul was like getting to know him and so, I felt like I knew him personally. This made listening about his death even more painful.

“It was arduous, bruising work, and he never faltered. This was the life he was given, and this is what he made of it.” ~ Lucy Kalanithi

These were some of the lessons I learned from this book and I hope that I managed to share them well. I will end this blog post by borrowing Lucy’s ending- “What happened to Paul was tragic. But he was not a tragedy.”

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