Book Review: When Breath Becomes Air – Paul Kalanithi

This book is undeniably honest, highlighting the realities of being a doctor, a patient, and dying. I am not embarrassed to say that I ended this book in tears, not only is it impeccably written but one of the most unique and useful books I have ever read.

“As a resident, my highest ideal was not saving lives – everyone dies eventually – but guiding a patient or family to an understanding of death or illness.”
― Paul KalanithiWhen Breath Becomes Air

Becoming a doctor should not be viewed through rose tinted glasses, something I know I have previously written about (a phrase which has certainly stuck with me). The stresses, long hours and innumerable tasks which are encumbered within medicine are written about in ‘When Breath Becomes Air’, and most importantly the realisms of just wanting to get work done. Through reading this book, I learnt how easy it is to slip into monotony, to just ticking patients off a list, however, that is not what being a surgeon, let alone a doctor, is all about.

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This has helped me realise that every patient who walks into a hospital is different, and that as a doctor you frequently meet people at their most vulnerable, most scared or most weak. How you approach a situation or initiate a conversation can impact hugely on how someone remembers their hospital experience or views hospitals for the rest of their life, and what can easily become just another patient in your day is a huge moment in a persons life. The humanity of being a doctor is truly emphasised within ‘When Breath Becomes Air’, with the personal stresses, commitment needed and responsibility felt being accentuated.

“The physician’s duty is not to stave off death or return patients to their old lives, but to take into our arms a patient and family whose lives have disintegrated and work until they can stand back up and face, and make sense of, their own existence.” 
― Paul KalanithiWhen Breath Becomes Air

Besides this, the second chapter of the book is as close to an account of death as possible. Dr Paul Kalanithi himself realised how as a doctor you deal with patients every day, but rarely do you experience what it is like, or the close proximity of death. I have not dealt with many loses in my life, and I think reading this book I got as close as possible to experiencing just a tiny part of what dealing with cancer can be like.

For me, being a doctor is a commitment to putting your patients first, and I believe that in many cases this is about making them feel comfortable, aware of what is happening but also recognising when not to bombard a patient with information. ‘When Breath Becomes Air’ is both phenomenally written and a just balance between science, patient care and first hand experience. I would recommend it to anyone, as it is a huge insight into what life is like as a neurosurgeon, but also death and how hospitals can influence lives.

‘People often ask if it is a calling, and my answer is yes. You can’t see it as a job, because if it’s a job, its the worst one there is’
― Paul KalanithiWhen Breath Becomes Air

Here is the amazon link for ‘When Breath Becomes AIr’

https://www.amazon.co.uk/When-Breath-Becomes-Paul-Kalanithi/dp/1847923674

 

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