The clouds are fluffy and the purest white. I have a window seat on the left, just a few rows in front of one of the pair of powerful jet engines, propelling us onwards and upwards. Beside me, my wife reads. An eighties hits playlist helps to fill the low drone of the turbines. I have just finished Paul Kalinithi’s When Breath Becomes Air.
As a physician myself, I have never read any one piece of literature that could get to the heart of my very existence better than Dr. Kalinithi’s masterpiece. Since the day I sat and met with my high school guidance counselor for the first time at the age of 14, and declared my decision to become a physician, I have never had this level of clarity. I never met Dr. Kalinithi, but his words echo throughout my soul, and I have internalized them as the wisdom of an older brother.
In the medical field, we joke amongst ourselves that the most important characteristics that go into a great physician cannot be taught – not in grade school, college, medical school, residency, or even fellowships. We must learn the lessons, develop the communication skills, and find the strength and love to provide compassionate medical care on our own, individual journeys. In his memoir, Dr. Kalinithi shares his own journey, from an inquisitive young man who showed the signs of future brilliance, to an exceptional neurosurgeon and neuroscientist, and finally, to a loving, fulfilled, and complete father to his daughter, Cady.
I myself have wondered about my purpose in this world a great deal. I spent many late nights, especially as a troubled teenager, trying to wrap my head around existence, and what it all meant to me. I have studied philosophy, literature, the scriptures, and the sciences in my quest to find meaning. Even as I near the end of my residency training in Emergency Medicine, thankful to have married my high school crush and celebrated our first anniversary this past September, with our future stretched out before us, I had felt this sense that I wasn’t anywhere closer to the understanding of my purpose and place in the world as I was in high school.
However, in Dr. Kalinithi’s words, and in his and his family’s experiences, I have found that which has eluded me in my almost three decades of life. Never before have I encountered such a complete and honest treatment of what it means to be a physician, a patient, or the relationship between the two. Furthermore, as a young husband myself, I have yet to read words which have touched on the challenges that physicians and their partners face in relation to the training and work that we do. Reading When Breath Becomes Air has felt, in more ways than one, like coming home.
I will explain it in this way. Last year, I read the wonderful Being Mortal by Dr. Atul Gawande. A gifted surgeon and writer, he addresses end of life care in this work, discussing the story of end of life care as it is, or is not, delivered in America today. He uses the stories of specific individuals, including the challenges his own father faced battling a terminal condition. However, Dr. Kalinithi’s When Breath Becomes Air has that total commitment to the mission that only he could achieve, by nature of his own challenges and how he rose to face them with his family.
The world needs more men like Paul Kalinithi. The world needs thoughtful, hard working, and loving individuals who care about the people around them and dedicate themselves and their lives to the understanding of the human condition and the pursuit of meaning through meaningful work. Dr. Kalinithi inspires me to plan for the future while living with total attention to the present, to strive toward perfection knowing it may not be attainable, and to forever seek ways to better myself and the people around me.