The Book

Title – When Breath Becomes Air

Author – Paul Kalanithi

Genre – Memoir

Publishers – Random House

Pages – 231 pages

I have had this book a long time. Personally, I don’t like sad books so I am very selective of time and location when I read them. Aisha Mai of Umm Ayman’s library was going to read it so I decided to buddy read it with her.

The book is about the life and death of Paul Kalanithi. It wasn’t as emotional as I expected, or so I thought until I read the epilogue by Lucy Kalanithi. It is real, deep and factual. I mean, it talks about the struggle and humanness of doctors and surgeons. I saw beyond the popular “God-complex.”

The Author

Paul Kalanithi was a neurosurgeon and writer. He ventured into medicine from literature. In this, I see determination. Paul was excellent at both his chosen fields and even received the American Academy of Neurological Surgery’s highest award for resident research.  He was thirty-six, on the verge of completing a decade’s work of his training as a neurosurgeon when he got a diagnosis that changed everything. One day, he went from being a fine doctor to being a patient.

Paul was brave, intelligent, human and real. He laid out his feelings, vulnerability and imperfections. Though well knowledgeable in literature, he used the most simple words and sentences to write his story.

Lessons and reflections

The book is real. I mean its factual. I had a lot of moments where I would just close the book and breathe. When I finished reading, I was a mix of feelings. I felt confused, a little sad and greatly inspired. It is a great legacy.

I don’t think the Nigerian educational system can allow or encourage one to go from a Masters in Literature to a neurosurgeon or maybe its Nigerians who wouldn’t take the risk. With the number of academic strikes, lack of mentorship and all, it would be such a hassle. However, I appreciated his determination and ability to do that.

Paul was dealing with the news of his disease and the question  he asked himself was not “why me?” but “why not me?” – From a stance of faith, This was everything for me. Even though he eventually realized that he had reversed the chronological order of the stages of grief. He started with acceptance. Whatever befalls us, we should first accept it.

His relationship with his wife was admirable. They were able to talk and be vulnerable with each other. Lucy is a strong woman. Her epilogue was everything. She said, “What happened to Paul was tragic, but he was not a tragedy.” I felt the same way.

Sometimes, we feel like we have all the time in the world, we want to do this, then this, then that, before we can start preparing for our hereafter. No one is guaranteed a long, healthy life. Don’t postpone living until you are dying.

My major takeaways are, that its okay to be vulnerable, to not be perfect, to strive. Also, your flaws don’t define you and above all, to simply live.

After reading the book, I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to be a surgeon or I was glad that I am not a surgeon.


I would recommend this book first to everyone, then to every doctor, then to everyone in healthcare, then to everyone who has or had a family member living with cancer or terminal illness, then to anyone who is a caregiver for terminally ill patients and then to everyone living with cancer or is terminally ill.

Have you read the book? What are your thoughts?

You can find other books I have read here.

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