Exposing the Human Side of Medicine

Reading is never enough, especially in medicine. Medical students across the world spend a lot of time reading whether it’s clinical vignettes, research articles or the headlines on the news.
Amid understanding the pathophysiology of the human body and of the biochemical reactions defining life, literature in medicine allows for us to perceive science through a humanistic lens. Whether you are searching for inspiration or a casual book to read, When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi is a must-read for all. As a reflection on medicine, the doctor-patient relationship and the meaning of our life as human beings, Dr. Kalanithi tells his story as a memoir where the news of his diagnosis and the closeness of his demise encourage readers to evaluate the blessing or reason of their existence. Right from the get-go, Dr. Kalanithi opens with a powerful scene filled with imagery. “I flipped through the CT scan images, the diagnosis obvious: the lungs were matted with innumerable
tumors, the spine deformed, a full lobe of the liver obliterated. Cancer, widely disseminated. I was a neurosurgical resident entering my final year of training. Over the last six years, I’d examined scores of such scans, on the off chance that some procedure might benefit the patient. But this scan was different: it was my own.” Evident is that the task of analyzing patient scans, interpreting results and serving patients takes a different direction when this young resident becomes a patient himself. As such, in the
twenty-two months left of his life, Dr. Kalanithi, who died at the age of 37 wrote a highly personal, breathtaking narrative in which he forces us as readers to think about, one of the most poignant things, learning how to live. He encourages us to ponder over the essence of chasing our life’s pursuits, especially if it means, we as human beings forget how to live.
Through a flashback of his life experiences, he develops an unusual love-hate relationship with medicine which also kept him away from his loved ones but also struck him as a calling to serve humanity rather than a noble profession of which he is a servant to. In recounting his own experiences serving his patients, he shows us how his desire to enjoy a life outside the
operating room was too late as what he needed in the final stages of life, was not how to live, but then how to die. Although, we’ve all heard the importance of living each day as if its our last, what are we supposed to do when one day causes us to question how many more of our entire
mortality remains.

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Striving to make the most of what little of existence he has, important life decisions are put into question such as his decision to have a child or the new position he was selected for. In the pages of his memoir, he attempts to learn how to gauge the strength of his body as well as his entire identity. As life unfolds, he dictates how he is treated as a problem and not a patient and as such was also denied one of the much needed drug treatments..
The power of the book lies in his descriptions of us waiting to live and learning to die. As humans, the real question according to Dr. Kalanithi then is how we will live, the answer of which is in no medical textbook. Therefore, to all aspiring pre-medical students and medical students, make sure to read the books of poetry gathering dust as life passes far too soon and before it, learning to live is a thing of the past.
Endings always have a sense of loss and while they are inevitable, they naturally teach us to reflect on what has passed, to remember those who’ve left us and to have hope for the future. Death is no doubt a reality we all have to face, and for some, coming to terms that a whole life veils itself in secrecy, where speech stops, and understanding fails isn’t easy. As a source of inspiration for all entering into medicine, When Breath Becomes Air is an eye-opener to the life of a doctor and his day-to-day work dictates fate’s twist where the doctor becomes the patient himself.

By Leah Sarah Peer

Kalanithi, Paul. When Breath Becomes Air, Random House, 2016.

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