Book Review: When Breath Becomes Air

#whenbreathbecomesair #paulkalanidhi #memoir #neuorosurgeon

When Breath Becomes Air: Book Review

Author: Paul KalaNidhi

What makes human life meaningful? 

Paul constantly struggles to find an answer to ‘this’ question. 

He initially thinks that it is actually the language. If we can’t convey our feelings, our words, what is the point? Due to this assumption, he chooses literature for further studies until a day when his friend gives him a psychology book, on reading which he realizes that there can’t be any language, had there not been such over-specialized human brain! Hence, he develops an interest in it as well.

He wanted to understand how brain and language give meaning to our life but literally, continues with literature, and also ends up submitting his thesis. He gets mocked. It was this time he realizes that literature people were actually not ready to accept his theory.

He happens to go on a camp where he feels that this brain-language interaction eventually leads to bonding among individuals and life is meaningless without relationships. He makes his mind to solve this mystery of meaningfulness of life or death, for that matter, and this is where I, as a reader find myself connected to the story.

Being myself a medical aspirant once upon a time, I always imagined or dreamt what and how the life of a wanna-be doctor looks like?

Paul beautifully and honestly explains his experiences, his dilemmas. How he progresses step-by-step to ultimately be in one of the toughest medical specializations ever-Neurosurgery? What worries were in his mind? How he feels when he meets the people or the patients being treated by the senior neurosurgeons? Instead of solving the question, his observations as a junior lead him to more!

‘Do the doctors actually help the patients in ridding their troubles and give meaning to their life or they just alter the face of the problem?’

He met ‘treated’ lot with strangely altered behaviour. There is an instance where a patient post-brain-surgery loses his capacity to communicate in a language that normal human understands. He does speak, but all gibberish! There is another scene where a child after being operated for a brain tumor suffers from uncontrolled hunger; a monster in the making as he doesn’t know when to stop. Paul gets upset. You feel the pain along with Paul. He concludes, ‘Complete cure is not possible, we just delay the truth i.e. death’.

Even Neuroscience fails to explain the meaning of life to Paul.  It in fact, seems capable of changing the meaning all together. Just a slight mistake and the life of patient is totally different! Paul thinks that in some cases even death would be a better option for the patient and more meaningful as well.

As if God wanted him to pursue his quest further. Hence, before he could finish his residency, he faces the bitterest truth of his life. This is where whole focus of his life changes? 

How does it matter what makes life meaningful when he never had one! 

During last many years he spent most of his day hours in the hospital among his patients to be what-‘a neurosurgeon’! He never lived enough with his family, just to pursue his passion, to find the answer ‘what makes life meaningful?’ And now look, he has completely lost it.

He understands how mechanised he had become as a doctor; he didn’t realize how important the life in itself is, whether meaningful or not!

We see him transforming from doctor to a patient which was not smooth obviously. The conflict is visible everywhere. He kind of knows what his fate might be. Still he finds motivation and makes his way back to OT. He was a  Neurosurgeon, this is what he was meant to be, and that is what gives meaning to his own life.

There are incidents that make him leave Neurosurgery afterall, only thing he was good at? It is interesting to see how he fights the demon overpowering him inside and writes about his battle. But eventually has to consider ‘dying’ to be more meaningful than living like that, and…his story remains half written!

The book throws light on various medical aspects including euthanasia.

My Take on When Breath Becomes Air

Though heartbreaking, I loved reading this book, as it gives us a reminder that no matter how big our aspirations are, we only have one life which is totally uncertain. So, give everyone their due, including yourself. Live life in the first place. You’ll definitely find the meaning…

PS. This review is quite revealing but then there’s nothing to hide either. You know what is inside the moment you pick the book- the real story of a person who was a doctor, a patient, and both. But it’s the way how this story has been told by that person himself who died at an age of 37, that makes it worth reading. Go ahead and read it.

#whenbreathbecomesair #paulkalanidhi #memoir #neuorosurgeon

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