At the age of thirty six, Dr.Paul Kalanithi, a second generation American, had the world at his feet. On the brink of completing a decade’s practice as a neurosurgeon, this energetic and enterprising medical practitioner had already accumulated a barrage of honours and garnered an untarnished reputation. However his tranquil and serene world was turned upon its head when he was diagnosed with an extremely rare but virulent form of inoperable lung cancer. Detected as it was in its final and rampant stage, it put Kalanithi through a demonic wringer.
As the disease worked its insidious ways internally, Dr.Paul Kalanithi refused to succumb to its deviousness. Reflecting on the inextricable nexus between mortality, morality, philosophy and literature, Kalanithi embarked on an arduous but determined task of putting his thoughts on paper. Viewing the deterioration of his body from a neutral perspective, he became a mendicant seeking bliss and inner peace. The sudden and involuntary transformation from a confident, self effacing and affable doctor to a withering, tremulous and a weak terminally ill patient spurred Dr.Paul Kalanithi to reassess the entire dynamic characterizing the interpersonal equations between a doctor and his patient. For a doctor overburdened with an unceasing flow of cases, patients seemed to be coterminous and synonymous with paper work. Cases soon made a transition to cadavers and the numbers stacked up in the morgue were mere statistical denominations representing a quaint combination of the failure of scalpels and contrivance of destiny.
Reminiscing on the value of human life and taking succor from personal experience and literature, Dr.Paul Kalanithi stares unblinkingly into the remorseless eyes of death. Although succumbing to its vice like grip, he leaves behind an invaluable and monumental mark of courage, compassion and dignity. Juxtaposing his pains with the poetry of T.S.Eliot, effortlessly coalescing his thoughts with that of Montaigne and coalescing his dark and foreboding future with the sparkling past of Tolstoy and Keats, Dr.Paul Kalanithi shows us the way to face adversity – with pride, passion and perception. This is a book that unhinges the reader from the vain and false comforts created by complacency and carelessness. It is a perfect wake up call for all of us to reassess the path that is being taken by our meandering lives. More than everything else it is a beautiful clarion call for humanity to re-evaluate its relationship with fellow human beings. Time, from the view point of every human being is finite. It is up to and in each one of us to make the most of this finite element. After all as the erudite Swami Vivekananda remarked, “every man’s purpose ought to be to leave an indelible mark behind him”.
The brave and indomitable Dr.Paul Kalanithi has not only left an indelible mark behind him, but he has also distilled in his readers the precious and invaluable mindset of seeing hope amidst despair. For this precocious gift, we are eternally grateful for this noble and selfless soul. Dr.Paul Kalanithi will continue to live in the midst of mankind so long as hope continues to pervade and love keeps permeating.
‘When Breath Becomes Air’ – An inhalation of pure and unadulterated hope!