Book review: A matter of life and death

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If you learned your life was nearly over, how would you choose to live?

Dr. Paul Kalanithi, the author of When Breath Becomes Air, is thirty-six and about to finish a decade of training as a neurosurgeon, when he receives a devastating diagnosis. Stage IV lung cancer. This beautifully written book describes Paul’s journey from doctor to patient as he sees his future shrink.

Kalanithi’s oncologist advises to him to find his values, but he finds them shifting as his illness progresses. He repeatedly asks himself, “What makes life meaningful enough to go on living?” Should he go back to work? Should he and his wife have a child?  Should he write a book? He works through these choices in a compelling and very human way.

Because his specialty is the brain, where identity resides, Kalanithi had helped patients and their families with some of these difficult decisions. Sometimes, “…the question is not simply whether to live or die but what kind of life is worth living.”

“I had to help those families understand that the person they knew—the full, vital independent human—now lived only in the past and that I needed their input to understand what sort of future he or she would want: an easy death or to be strung between bags of fluids going in, others coming out, to persist despite begin unable to struggle.”

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Dr. Paul Kalanithi

Some of you may not be up to reading this book. Its emotional journey may parallel one in your own experience too closely. Nonetheless, I believe we need to have some of these difficult conversations with our loved ones before they become necessary. It’s not only about how we want to die—with compassion and without pain—but how we want to live—with purpose and joy. Those making decisions on our behalf need to know our wishes and we need to know theirs.  I recommend this book as a way to start the conversation.

 

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