When Breath Becomes Air | Abraham Verghese

Summary of: When Breath Becomes Air
By: Abraham Verghese


Embark on an emotional and insightful journey through Paul Kalanithi’s ‘When Breath Becomes Air,’ a personal account of his exploration of the meaning of life and struggle with terminal cancer. As you delve into this poignant summary, you’ll discover how Kalanithi, the author, weaves together literature, neuroscience, and medicine to uncover the true meaning of life. The book also offers a firsthand perspective on life and death, as experienced by Kalanithi throughout his career and as a cancer patient. Prepare yourself for a powerful exploration of the human experience, filled with profound reflections on life, relationships, and the search for meaning.

The Intersection of Literature and Neuroscience

Paul Kalanithi, initially interested in literature, became captivated by the idea that the brain is an organic machine that enables the human mind to exist. His study of neuroscience led him to believe that true meaning lies in human relationships and that our ability to form relationships comes directly from our brains. This perspective was informed by his experiences visiting a home for people with brain injuries. Ultimately, Kalanithi applied to medical school and learned the true meanings of life and death through hands-on experience.

Life and Death in Medical School

Kalanithi’s experience with the realities of life and death expanded beyond the anatomy lab. As a medical student, he witnessed the heartbreaking premature births and passing away of twins. This experience taught him that life and death are not mutually exclusive, and even death holds a sign of life.

Tough Choices in Neurosurgery

As a resident in neurosurgery, Kalanithi’s first tough decision was whether to operate on Matthew, a boy with a brain tumor in a precarious location. He chose to operate successfully, giving Matthew his childhood back. However, Kalanithi also witnessed numerous deaths, from head trauma to pneumonia, making his first year as a resident a challenge.

The Weight of Responsibility

During his residency, Kalanithi experienced the weight of responsibility in life-and-death situations. He struggled with questioning whether he was honoring his patients’ humanity as he faced exhaustion and grueling work hours. When a patient suffered irreversible brain damage, he began to wonder if he made the right choice in saving his life. Kalanithi needed to reflect on the meaning of life and the importance of human connections to honor his patients.

The Dual Pursuit of a Neuroscientist Surgeon

During his fourth year of residency, Kalanithi trained at a neuroscience lab to become a neuroscientist while pursuing his career in neurosurgery. Fascinated by neuromodulation, Kalanithi wanted to study the reverse by finding ways to send signals from robotic limbs to the brain, creating artificial limbs that help the brain respond to the patient’s surroundings. Although being both a neurosurgeon and neuroscientist was highly prestigious and difficult, Kalanithi realized that technical excellence was morally required. Skill was critical, as he learned after the young boy he had successfully treated years ago was now in a dramatically worsening condition due to a piece of his brain getting damaged while removing the tumor.

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