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Recommended Read for Med Students (and Everyone Else): When Breath Becomes Air

If you’re one of my fellow 8 million New Yorkers, I’m sure you’ve had this experience: it’s early, probably on a Monday morning, and you’re attempting a peaceful subway commute. Out of the corner of your eye, you witness a fellow NYCer sobbing over the pages of a book, thick, beady tears plopping onto pages even more frequently than the train’s unending delays. It’s terribly embarrassing, both for them and for you watching.

Well, dear readers, I’m here to come clean: after finishing Dr. Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air, I was that subway weeper.

What’s it about?

For all of you who have yet to hear about this book, Dr. Kalanithi’s memoir details his journey from a promising young neurosurgery resident to a lung cancer patient at the age of 35. More importantly, it’s an outstandingly beautiful look at the humanity in medicine and how to find it again, even when it seems all but lost.

My biggest takeaway from When Breath Becomes Air came from Dr. Kalanithi explaining how he found medicine in the first place. Though he was the son and nephew of two esteemed doctors, he was also a lover of great literary minds (think T.S. Eliot, Camus, Woolf) who always imagined he would become an author. In fact, he graduated from Stanford with degrees in both biology and English literature. To borrow his own words, he describes his scholarly pursuits as “…driven less by achievement than by trying to understand, in earnest: What makes a human life meaningful?”

Only after completing a Master’s at Stanford — also in English Literature — did Dr. Kalanithi start to see  “…language as an almost supernatural force, existing between people, bringing our brains, shielded in centimeter-thick skulls, into communion…” From there, he began to think about “the language of neurons, digestive tracts, and heartbeats.” It became his journey to understand what makes us human, in our most deep and intimate ways, that ultimately lead him to pursue medicine.

What can we learn from this book?

At a time when test scores have never been more important, the hours more demanding, the work more depressing and the rewards fewer and further between, Dr. Kalanithi saw to the soul of the medical world and brought not only his intelligence but also his incredible empathy to the craft. I only wish we had more people with his grace, perception and compassion at the helm of our medical institutions. We need voices like his to remind students and residents alike that they are not defined by their exam scores, that they are not alone, that they are strong and that they have a right to happiness. If there’s one thing the field needs most, it’s to reinforce these fundamental truths.

Who should read this book?

Anyone who has ever asked what makes us us, cared about another person, seen someone become sick, been sick themselves or enjoyed reading a moving piece of nonfiction — especially if they are involved in the medical fields. Also, for all of you romantics out there, there is also a glorious love story between these pages.

Where should I read this book?

Anywhere you feel safe getting a little emotional. Maybe on a sidewalk cafe in black and white Paris, your bedroom, or on a park bench.

What should I expect?

A few tears (yes, even a few no-nonsense neurosurgeons I know admitted to tearing up a bit while reading it), a few laughs, a beautiful romance and a reminder that we are all people.

Any final thoughts?

Read it immediately, if not sooner.