BOOK REVIEW: WHEN BREATH BECOMES AIR

The title of this book, written by a brilliant neurosurgeon and neuroscientist, is by itself suggestive of its content : an account of how death overcomes life. The book is about this young man who, at the age of 36, faced his mortality with great struggle and erudite understanding. The book was started as a memoir, documenting events from the time of his diagnosis of terminal cancer till after his death. The book was initially written by the author himself and completed after his death by his wife. He penned it during the times of his illness, reeling from the brutal effects of cancer and chemotherapy till he was unable to write. After his death his brave wife wrote the epilogue which reflects her courage and undying love for her multifaceted husband who also had the gift of writing . His love for English literature, which he had turned to during his illness, flows so easily throughout this book. The author began his college education majoring in English literature and then went on to study medicine and neurosurgery as he was keen to understand ‘the identity’ of the person that resides in the brain. During his training in neurosurgery he had seen and managed numerous patients with cancer at all stages of the disease. However when faced with his own diagnosis, life changed very suddenly. He wrote about his role as a doctor-turned- patient who urgently needed survival statistics from his physician but was
given none. He explained this in terms of physicians not really knowing the patient’s
survival time. Whatever the statistic, the patient always hoped for a better situation. Reading this book as a doctor gave me an understanding of how well doctors need to understand their patients. Patients can easily become problems that need to be solved by a doctor. Having gone through the rigors of therapy and the ups and downs of both physical and emotional states , he reflects on how little is the understanding of Doctors in the veritable hell they put their patients through in the form of therapy. His insight into
a physician’s duty is not to stave off death or to return the patient to their old lives, but to take into our arms a patient and family whose lives have been disintegrated by a nature’s cruel trick and work until they can stand up and face, making sense of their own existence.
His physician constantly reminded him that at that stage of facing terminal illness he had to figure out what was most important to him and experience those events. During the short span of seven months when he had regained strength after initial chemotherapy, he was able to get back to the Operating Room as a neurosurgeon- a profession that became his calling and not just a job. To protect the life and soul of his patient was sacred to him. In making decisions for the patient it was important to understand the patient’s mind, his identity, his values and what makes his life worth living. This very moving and gripping
narrative is a reminder for both doctors and patients. For doctors to strive to understand a
patient’s point of view while he faces his mortality.For patients to try and figure out what it is that is most valuable to pursue when life is ebbing away.

-Dr. Susy Kurian

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