If you’re like me, you didn’t do all the assigned reading in your medical humanities course as a first-year medical student. We were busy, plus we already knew how to be human. What we didn’t know was how to be doctors.
When Breath Becomes Air by Dr. Paul Kalanithi gives us — now doctors — a chance to make it right again when it comes to that reading list. Paul, as we come to know him, is a neurosurgical chief resident at Stanford when he’s diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. What follows is the story of his diagnosis and his too-early death. And no, I didn’t just ruin the story for you. It would be hard not to know that Dr. Kalanithi succumbs to his illness given the esteemed profile of his life and his memoir. But knowing the end of the story makes this story better. It means we as readers can grasp the magnitude of the experience from the first page and admire how Paul prepares himself, his family, and the rest of us for the ending.
Caring for patients is the greatest privilege of any physician’s life, yet for every called code, every devastating head injury, and every terminal rhythm, I’ve taken comfort in one fact: I’m not the patient. Dr. Kalanithi reminds us that someday we will be that patient, and our plans in the meantime are just that: plans. Imagining ourselves as patients, even for but a moment, may help us be better doctors, and Dr. Kalanithi’s story insists we do just that.