By Chet Yarbrough
When Breath Becomes Air
Written by: Paul Kalnithi with foreword from Abraham Verghese
Narration by: Sunil Malhotra, Cassandra Campbell
“When Breath Becomes Air” memorializes a life of decency. It is not a perfect life. It is a short life of comfort and accomplishment, infused with stress and failure. Paul Kalnithi is the son of Indian immigrants who grows up in Kingman, Arizona. Kingman is a town of less than 29,000 people lying between Las Vegas luck and Phoenix senior living.
Paul’s parents, particularly his mother, demand much from their children. Paul is exposed to the classics of literature at an early age to supplement his private school education. His educational interest is split between literature and science.
Paul is accepted at Stanford to pursue certification as a neurosurgeon. His motivation to become a doctor is partly based on a desire to understand the meaning of life. If there is meaning, Paul believes it lies in the lacunae of the mind.
Within one year of Paul’s ten year journey to graduation, he is struck with lung cancer. After a first round of treatment, Paul’s cancer is in remission and he returns to Stanford to finish his residency. As he nears completion of residency, the cancer reasserts itself and Paul decides to write “When Breath Becomes Air” to explain what he believes about life.
There are many messages to humanity in “When Breath Becomes Air”. It is founded on insight drawn from what Paul has read and what Paul has experienced. Though Paul is a man of science, he argues there is a God. He observes that humans are fallible, not least of which are neurosurgeons that fail to acknowledge their errors. All human beings make mistakes because of errors in judgment, ignorance, and human weakness.
Those who choose to listen to “When Breath Becomes Air” will look at life differently. Not because of belief in God or the fallibility of human beings, but because we all live between Las Vegas luck and Phoenix senior living. Education makes a difference, and no life of comfort and accomplishment is without stress and failure. The best one hopes for is to live and leave life as decently as Paul Kalnithi who died at 37, at the peak of his career.