Dr Paul Kalanithi was 36-years-old and about to complete his training as a neurosurgeon when he received the shock of his life as he was diagnosed with lung cancer.
In his book ‘When the breath becomes air’ he describes his journey within hours his world turned upside down from being a doctor examining and treating patients to a patient receiving medical care. Spoiler alert, he dies before completing the book.
In his book, he captures moments that make the reader — especially if they are from the medical field — reflect on their own lives like when he was waiting patiently to see his cancer consultant who refuses to answers his question, “How long would I live?”! The same question that he personally refused to answer when his patients asked.
Dr Kalanithi received chemotherapy and was able to return to work for a few months, during which he tried to regain hope that his illness would respond to the treatment. Sadly this was not the case as the tumour started spreading to other parts of his body and he was no longer able to work.
He described his last day as a doctor. “I left the operating room a little late, then I collected my things, those I had accumulated over the course of my seven years of life, extra sets of clothes for the nights I spent in the hospital, toothbrushes, soap bars, phone chargers, snacks and my collection of medical books. I reconsidered leaving the books, they will be of more use here. Tears fell as I sat in the car. I slowly drove home, walked through the front door, hung my white coat, and took off my identification badge for the last time”.
The book is more than a memoir of a person battling cancer, it’s full of emotions as Dr Kalanithi takes us through his reflection on his life, the time he spent chasing his dream to become a doctor, skipping all the social and family gatherings and spending sleepless nights to care for his patients.
This reminded me of my early years as a trainee in psychiatry working night shifts at a busy teaching hospital in London and seeing patients from different backgrounds each with his or her own mental health problems asking myself if I could save them all.
The making of a medical doctor begins at medical school where students spend long hours reading books and examining patients in the wards before sitting endless exams. During their training, doctors witness the birth of babies and the anticipation of the parents as he draws his first breath of air and live through moments of frustration when they witness the death of a patient after all attempts to save him fails.
This is then followed by breaking the sad news to the family. I often asked, what happens when a doctor gets sick?
Would he or she rush to diagnose himself or consult another doctor? Would he read about all the side effects caused by the medication they get? What if the medical condition is terminal with constant pain, weakness and fear of the unknown? Fear of being a burden on those around them needing to be washed and fed like a small child.
Dr Kalanithi died before completing his book but his wife was able to describe his last days and the advice he wanted to share with other doctors. He asked doctors not to forget they are humans and to balance work with family life as the day that ends never comes back.