When Breath Becomes Air: A Doctor’s Reflection on Meaning and Dying

Dr. Paul Kalanithi was a neurosurgeon who never smoked yet was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer and died last year at the age of 37.  Between his diagnosis and eventual death, he and his wife Lucy had a child, and he wrote the book When Breath Becomes Air.   His wife talks about him and the book in the interview with Katie Couric above.  While being a neurosurgeon might seem like a very stereotypical Asian American thing to do, upon reading more about him, he was the opposite of those stereotypes, and I found him to be an inspirational modern renaissance man.


Kalanithi’s path of being a doctor may seem like the dream of many Asian American parents, but his motivation was different.  He double majored at Stanford in English and biology, and obtained a masters degree in English literature from there and later got a masters in philosophy from Cambridge.  Much of his studies centered around the question of “what makes human life meaningful?”  He chose neurosurgery as it “seemed to present the most challenging and the most direct confrontation with meaning, identity, and death.”  In addition to publishing a number of scientific papers (I wish my papers had as many citations as his), he had this op-ed piece published in the New York Times.  Another way he defied stereotypes was by having a white spouse – Indian Americans have one of the lowest out-marriage rates of all Asian Americans.

Kalanithi made a number of difficult choices after his diagnosis, and one of the most difficult was to have a child knowing that the child would never have any direct memories of him.  With my children, a milestone that I would always mark was when they got old enough to remember my wife and I should we die suddenly.  Other parents with cancer and young children have made video blogs as a way for their children to get to know them.  This book is way is one way that his daughter can get to know him, at a pace of her choosing.

The interview with Katie Courice raises many other issues that Kalanithi encountered.  With the current state of my life, I don’t get to read books that aren’t work related very often, but When Breath Becomes Air is one book that I will make time to read.  A last essay from him was published here in The Stanford Medical Magazine.

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About Jeff

Jeff lives in Silicon Valley, and attempts to juggle marriage, fatherhood, computer systems research, running, and writing.
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