Dr. Paul Kalanithi died in March of 2015 while completing the manuscript for his book When Breath Becomes Air (Random House, January 2016). Here, his widow Lucy explains why college students will be interested in his writing.
At the age of 36, my husband Paul Kalanithi was on the verge of finishing a decade’s worth of training as a neurosurgeon at Stanford when his health began to falter. A CT scan confirmed what we had both come to suspect: he had lung cancer, widely disseminated. In the very hospital where Paul had learned to perform surgery, he was checked into a room and handed a blue patient’s gown. We held each other tightly in his hospital bed, both understanding that the cancer was terminal.
We had met twelve years prior, as 24-year-olds in medical school, and soon became inseparable. We surreptitiously held hands as we sat, side-by-side, during lectures. I found Paul handsome and witty, but also deeply thoughtful and reflective. He had degrees in English literature and, for much of his life, he had assumed he’d become a writer. But he entered medicine instead, as he wrote in When Breath Becomes Air, “to forge relationships with the suffering, and to keep following the question of what makes human life meaningful, even in the face of death and decay.” When he became a neurosurgery resident, Paul felt deeply responsible not only to treat his patients’ diseases but to address their existential concerns.
As a patient, though, Paul soon found that facing his own death was utterly disorienting. “Instead of being the pastoral figure aiding a life transition,” he wrote, “I found myself the sheep, lost and confused.” To try to make sense of his situation, he turned back to writing, exploring the dual perspectives of a physician treating the sickest of patients and a terminally‐ill patient existing in the liminal state between life and death.
When Breath Becomes Air is the culmination of Paul’s love for literature, his appreciation for the sanctity of the doctor-patient relationship, and his quest to forge from his experiences a cogent tale of someone grappling with mortality—while also finding meaning in life.
In the foreword, Abraham Verghese—a writer‐physician Paul admired immensely—wrote this about When Breath Becomes Air: “After reading the book you are about to read, I confess I felt inadequate: there was an honesty, a truth in the writing that took my breath away. Be ready. Be seated. See what courage sounds like. See how brave it is to reveal yourself in this way.” Reading those words brings tears to my eyes every time.
Paul died in March, 2015, while completing the manuscript for this book. Working with Random House to bring When Breath Becomes Air from Paul’s hands to yours has been among the most meaningful tasks of my life. I sincerely hope you will consider it for your common reading program.