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Interviewing Paul Kalanithi, Author of “When Breath Becomes Air”

when breath becomes air

Welcome to our exclusive interview with the late Paul Kalanithi, a remarkable individual and renowned neurosurgeon whose life story continues to inspire millions around the world. Paul’s journey was one of extraordinary dedication, resilience, and profound introspection.

Paul Kalanithi was not only a brilliant doctor but also an exceptional writer and philosopher. His memoir, “When Breath Becomes Air,” touched the hearts of readers worldwide, shedding light on his own battle with terminal lung cancer and his deep exploration of life’s meaning in the face of mortality. Through his words, Paul invited us to confront our own mortality and reevaluate what truly matters in our lives.

In this interview, we have the privilege of delving further into Paul Kalanithi’s thoughts, experiences, and the lessons he has left behind. We will explore the impact of his medical career, his reflections on the human condition, and the legacy he hoped to leave through both his work and his writing.

Although Paul is no longer with us, his insights and wisdom continue to guide and inspire us, reminding us of the fragility and beauty of life, and compelling us to live each moment fully. Join us as we honor the memory of Paul Kalanithi and delve into the profound depths of his remarkable journey.

Who is Paul Kalanithi?

Paul Kalanithi was an extraordinary individual whose life and work left an indelible mark on the world. Born on April 1, 1977, in New York City, Kalanithi possessed a unique combination of talents and passions that made him not only an exceptional neurosurgeon but also a gifted writer. His profound exploration of life, death, and the human condition in the face of terminal illness has touched the hearts of many and continues to inspire people worldwide.

Kalanithi’s academic journey began at Stanford University, where he pursued a bachelor’s degree in Human Biology and English literature. He later continued his studies at Yale School of Medicine, driven by his desire to make a difference in the lives of others. As his career progressed, he became interested in the intricate workings of the brain and the immense impact it has on our well-being.

However, fate had a different path in mind for Kalanithi. Just as he was on the verge of completing his residency in neurosurgery, he received the devastating diagnosis of stage IV lung cancer. This life-altering moment profoundly influenced his perspective on medicine and mortality, leading him to examine the very essence of existence.

Throughout his battle with cancer, Kalanithi fearlessly confronted the fragility of life and the complexities of human suffering. Instead of allowing the illness to define him, he chose to confront it head-on and channel his experiences into words. In his memoir, “When Breath Becomes Air,” Kalanithi chronicled his journey from doctor to patient, eloquently reflecting on the profound questions surrounding life’s meaning and purpose.

Paul Kalanithi’s journey may have been tragically cut short, but his impact continues to reverberate throughout the medical community and beyond. Through his memoir and his work as a neurosurgeon, he left a lasting impression on those who encountered his story. As we reflect on his remarkable life, we are reminded of the power of resilience, the importance of embracing our mortality, and the enduring legacy of one individual’s determination to find meaning amid adversity.

20 Thought-Provoking Questions with Paul Kalanithi

1.Can you provide your favorite 10 quotes from “When Breath Becomes Air”?

Sure, my favorite 10 quotes from this book are:

1.You can’t ever reach perfection, but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you are ceaselessly striving.

2.I can’t go on. I’ll go on.

3.The main message of Jesus, I believed, is that mercy trumps justice every time.

4.Life wasn’t about avoiding suffering.

5.Those burdens are what make medicine holy and wholly impossible: in taking up another’s cross, one must sometimes get crushed by the weight.

6.We shall rise insensibly, and reach the tops of the everlasting hills, where the winds are cool and the sight is glorious.

7.When there is no place for the scalpel, words are the surgeon’s only tool.

8.Even if I’m dying, until I actually die, I am still living.

9.Bereavement is not the truncation of married love,C. S. Lewis wrote, but one of its regular phases—like the honeymoon.

10.When there is no place for the scalpel, words are the surgeon’s only tool.

2. What inspired you to write this book?

When I set out to write “When Breath Becomes Air,” my inspiration was rooted in two fundamental aspects of my life: medicine and mortality. As a neurosurgeon, I had the privilege of witnessing both the fragility and resilience of life on a daily basis. My experiences with patients facing life-threatening illnesses profoundly impacted me, forcing me to confront the profound questions surrounding life, death, and the meaning of it all.

The second aspect that inspired me to write this memoir was my own personal battle with terminal cancer. Diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer at the age of 36, I found myself straddling the worlds of doctor and patient. This unique perspective gave me an intimate understanding of the human experience in the face of mortality. I felt a deep urgency to share my insights and reflections, to explore the complexities of life and death through the lens of my own journey.

Writing became a means for me to make sense of my own mortality and find solace amidst the uncertainty. It allowed me to reflect on the intricate dance between science and philosophy, as well as the intersection of the human spirit and medical knowledge. Through my words, I hoped to convey the importance of embracing life fully, even in the face of imminent death.

3. Could you share some key themes or messages that you wanted to convey through your writing?

I would gladly share some key themes and messages that I aimed to convey through my writing:

The fragility of life: One of the central themes in my writing is the recognition of the fleeting nature of our existence. My experiences as a neurosurgeon and a patient taught me to appreciate the preciousness of life and highlight the importance of making the most of the time we have.

The pursuit of meaning and purpose: In my memoir “When Breath Becomes Air,” I explored the philosophical question of what gives life meaning in the face of mortality. I strived to convey the significance of finding purpose and living a meaningful life, even when confronted with the inevitability of death.

The complex relationship between doctor and patient: Through my narrative, I sought to depict the profound connection between doctors and their patients, emphasizing empathy, compassion, and the need for effective communication. I believed that understanding a patient’s perspective is crucial to providing proper care and support.

Reflections on identity and personal transformation: My journey from being a doctor to becoming a patient forced me to grapple with questions of identity and self-discovery. I aimed to convey the transformative power of illness and the potential for personal growth that can arise from such adversity.

4. How did your background as a neurosurgeon influence the way you approached life and death?

My background as a neurosurgeon had a profound influence on the way I approached life and death. Being intimately involved in the delicate balance between life and death on a daily basis provided me with a unique perspective on the fragility and preciousness of human existence.

First and foremost, my experiences as a neurosurgeon made me acutely aware of the inherent uncertainty surrounding life and death. Despite our best efforts, there are limitations to what medicine can achieve. Witnessing patients facing serious illnesses and grappling with mortality taught me humility and the importance of acknowledging the limits of our control.

Additionally, being a neurosurgeon allowed me to witness the immense resilience and strength of the human spirit. I saw patients who, despite their physical and emotional struggles, displayed remarkable courage and determination. These encounters affirmed my belief in the power of the human will and the capacity for individuals to find meaning and purpose even in the face of adversity.

5. In your memoir, you contemplate the meaning of life in the face of mortality. What insights did you gain during this introspection?

In my memoir “When Breath Becomes Air,” I indeed contemplated the profound question of life’s meaning while facing my own mortality. Throughout this introspection, I gained several insights that profoundly shaped my perspective.

First and foremost, I realized the importance of finding purpose in our lives. Prior to my diagnosis, I had dedicated years to pursuing a career in neurosurgery. However, as my illness progressed, I was forced to confront the possibility that my plans might not come to fruition. This experience taught me that while the future is uncertain, we can still find meaning by embracing the present moment and cherishing the relationships and experiences that truly matter.

Facing the imminence of death also made me appreciate the value of human connection and empathy. As a physician, I had always strived to understand my patients on a deeper level, but it was only when I faced my own mortality that I truly grasped the significance of compassion and presence. It became clear to me that every patient has a unique story, and by engaging with them authentically, we can provide comfort and support even in the face of adversity.

Another insight I gained was the recognition of the fragility and resilience of the human spirit. In confronting the limitations of my own body, I witnessed firsthand the remarkable strength that lies within us all. Despite the pain and uncertainty, I discovered that there is an unwavering capacity for hope and the pursuit of a meaningful existence, even in the face of our mortality.

when breath becomes air-book

6. What challenges did you encounter while writing about such personal and profound experiences?

I encountered several challenges while writing about such personal and profound experiences. One of the primary challenges was navigating the delicate balance between sharing my own story authentically while also respecting the privacy of those involved. Writing about deeply personal experiences required a careful consideration of the impact it might have on both myself and the people close to me.

Another significant challenge was finding the right words to effectively convey the intensity of my emotions and the complexity of the subject matter. It was important for me to communicate the depth of my experiences in a way that would resonate with readers and allow them to connect with the themes of mortality, identity, and purpose.

Additionally, reflecting on my journey and reliving certain moments was emotionally challenging. Writing about my battle with cancer and facing mortality required revisiting painful memories and examining existential questions. Balancing the emotional weight of these experiences with the need for clarity and coherence in my writing was a constant challenge.

7. How did the diagnosis of terminal cancer change your perspective on life and the medical profession?

The diagnosis of terminal cancer had a profound impact on my perspective on life and the medical profession. As a neurosurgeon, I was accustomed to dealing with life and death situations, but suddenly finding myself on the other side of the scalpel brought about an entirely different level of understanding.

Firstly, the diagnosis forced me to confront my own mortality at a much younger age than anticipated. I was faced with the reality that life is fragile and that time is limited. This realization led me to reevaluate my priorities and focus on what truly mattered to me. It made me appreciate the present moment more deeply and treasure the relationships with my loved ones.

From a professional standpoint, the diagnosis had a transformative effect on my perception of medicine. Before, I had seen medicine primarily as a science concerned with diagnosing and treating diseases. However, facing my own mortality made me realize that medicine is not just about curing illnesses, but also about providing compassionate care and support to patients and their families.

Experiencing the vulnerability, fear, and uncertainty that come with a terminal illness allowed me to empathize with my patients in a way I couldn’t have done before. It made me understand the importance of addressing not only the physical aspects of illness but also the emotional and existential dimensions. I became acutely aware of the immense responsibility that doctors have in guiding patients through difficult times and helping them find meaning and purpose in their lives.

8. How did your interactions with patients and their families shape your understanding of empathy and compassion?

First and foremost, these interactions allowed me to connect deeply with patients and their families on an emotional level. Witnessing their vulnerability and confronting the fragility of human life helped me recognize the importance of empathy in providing holistic care. It taught me that understanding and sharing in their suffering is crucial for establishing trust, building relationships, and delivering compassionate care.

Moreover, as I formed connections with patients and their families, I learned that empathy goes beyond simply sympathizing with their pain. It involves truly understanding their unique perspectives, fears, hopes, and aspirations. By actively listening to their stories, concerns, and desires, I discovered the profound impact that genuine empathy can have in easing their burden and fostering healing.

Furthermore, my interactions with patients and their families illuminated the significance of compassion in navigating difficult medical situations. Compassion allowed me to approach each patient as an individual rather than just a medical case. It facilitated a more humanistic approach wherein I acknowledged their emotions, respected their autonomy, and prioritized their well-being alongside medical considerations.

9. Did you find solace or meaning in your work despite knowing the inevitable outcome of your illness?

Finding solace and meaning in my work despite knowing the inevitable outcome of my illness was an essential aspect of my journey. As a neurosurgeon, my profession allowed me to engage with patients on a deeply personal level, witnessing their vulnerability and helping them navigate through life-altering circumstances. This connection with others, even in the face of my own mortality, gave me a profound sense of purpose and fulfillment.

Knowing that my time was limited compelled me to reflect deeply on the meaning of life and the value we place on our existence. It made me appreciate the significance of each moment and every interaction. I realized that while I couldn’t change the ultimate outcome of my illness, I could control how I spent the time I had left. Embracing this mindset enabled me to find solace and meaning in not just my work but also in the everyday experiences that many take for granted.

Furthermore, grappling with the existential questions surrounding life and death deepened my understanding of the human condition. It allowed me to cultivate empathy and compassion, both for my patients and for those around me. This awareness of our shared vulnerability and the fragility of life brought profound meaning to my work, transcending the boundaries of medical practice and touching the essence of what it means to be alive.

10. How did your relationship with your wife, Lucy, support and guide you throughout your journey?

Throughout my journey, both in my personal life and as a neurosurgeon facing a terminal illness, my relationship with my wife Lucy was an immense source of support and guidance. Lucy played an integral role in helping me navigate the challenges and uncertainties that came with my diagnosis.

From the moment we discovered my illness, Lucy stood by my side unwaveringly. She not only provided emotional support but also became an active participant in my medical decisions. As a fellow physician, she possessed the knowledge and understanding to engage with my doctors and help interpret complex information. Her presence during appointments and discussions allowed us to make informed choices together, empowering us to shape my treatment options and end-of-life preferences.

Lucy’s background in medicine also had a profound impact on our shared experience. She understood the intricacies of my profession, the sacrifices it demanded, and the passion that fueled me. This mutual understanding deepened our connection, enabling her to provide a level of empathy and compassion that only someone with firsthand knowledge could offer.

11. What role did literature and philosophy play in helping you make sense of your illness and impending death?

Literature and philosophy played a profound role in helping me make sense of my illness and impending death. Both disciplines provided me with the tools to explore existential questions and grapple with the complexities of human existence.

literature served as a therapeutic outlet for me. It allowed me to escape from the confines of my illness and momentarily immerse myself in different worlds and perspectives. Reading various works helped me gain deeper insights into the human condition, fostering empathy and understanding. Through characters’ struggles and triumphs, I found solace, inspiration, and new ways of thinking.

In addition to literature, philosophy played an essential role in my journey. It provided frameworks for exploring fundamental questions about life, death, and meaning. Philosophical texts engaged me in rigorous intellectual inquiry, allowing me to critically examine my beliefs and values. Concepts such as mortality, authenticity, and existentialism became pivotal in shaping my understanding of my illness and the choices I faced.

12. As a doctor turned patient, how did your experiences within the healthcare system affect your perception of medical practice?

As a doctor turned patient, my experiences within the healthcare system had a profound impact on my perception of medical practice. Prior to my diagnosis with terminal lung cancer, I had always approached medicine from the perspective of a physician, focusing on providing the best care for my patients. However, being on the receiving end of medical treatment allowed me to see the healthcare system from an entirely different vantage point.

First and foremost, being a patient made me acutely aware of the vulnerability and fragility of human life. As doctors, we often view our patients’ conditions in terms of statistics, diagnoses, and treatment options. But experiencing illness firsthand forced me to confront the reality that these statistics represented real people grappling with mortality. This understanding deepened my empathy and reinforced the importance of compassion and sensitivity when communicating with patients.

Furthermore, as a patient, I became intimately familiar with the various challenges and limitations of the healthcare system. I saw how fragmented care can be, with disconnected specialists and departments lacking proper coordination. I encountered instances where communication between healthcare providers was inadequate, leading to confusion or delays in my treatment. These experiences highlighted the need for better integration and collaboration among medical professionals to ensure comprehensive and efficient care.

13. How did your reflections on mortality influence your approach to living each day to its fullest?

When I was diagnosed with terminal cancer, I was confronted with the stark reality of my own mortality. This forced me to confront the finite nature of life and prompted a deep introspection about how I wanted to spend my remaining time.

Recognizing that life is ephemeral, I sought to prioritize what truly mattered to me, both personally and professionally. I realized that every moment became more valuable and precious, prompting me to make conscious choices about how to allocate my time and energy. I became acutely aware that putting off important experiences or delaying pursuing my passions was no longer an option.

Contemplating mortality also allowed me to gain a broader perspective on life’s purpose and meaning. It made me question what legacy I would leave behind and how I could make a positive impact on others. It became clear that embracing empathy, compassion, and connection with loved ones were essential aspects of a meaningful existence.

Moreover, facing the fragility of life led me to reevaluate my priorities and shed light on what truly brought me joy and fulfillment. I learned to relish in the simple pleasures, appreciate the beauty of the present moment, and find gratitude even in the face of adversity.

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14. In your opinion, what is the most important lesson you learned from facing mortality head-on?

Throughout my journey as a neurosurgeon and a patient with terminal cancer, one profound realization emerged: the importance of embracing the present moment.

When faced with the stark reality of my limited time left, it became evident that life’s true value lies in savoring each precious moment. Mortality served as a clarion call, urging me to appreciate the beauty in everyday existence, to cherish moments of connection, and to find meaning in even the simplest of actions.

Priorities shifted dramatically as I recognized the significance of relationships and love. The connections we foster and the impact we have on others become paramount when confronted with the fragility of life. Recognizing the profound interconnectedness of humanity, I realized the importance of empathy, compassion, and understanding.

Additionally, facing mortality head-on led me to question the purpose of my own life. I learned that finding meaning is not an inherent given but rather a constant quest, shaped by our choices and actions. It became clear that pursuing work that aligned with my values, striving for personal growth, and contributing positively to society were key elements in creating a meaningful life.

15. How do you hope your book will impact readers and provoke meaningful conversations about life and death?

I sincerely hope that my book, “When Breath Becomes Air,” will deeply impact readers and ignite profound conversations about life and death. Through my own personal journey as a neurosurgeon and terminal cancer patient, I aimed to explore the fundamental aspects of human existence and the meaning of life.

I hope that my words will resonate with readers on an emotional level, prompting them to reflect on their own mortality and the value of time. By sharing my experiences and insights, I aspire to provoke contemplation about the fragility and preciousness of life, encouraging readers to reevaluate their priorities, seek purpose, and live more fully.

Moreover, I hope that my book will spark meaningful conversations about death, an often taboo topic in our society. By shedding light on the reality of mortality and the dying process, I hope to facilitate discussions that foster empathy, understanding, and compassion towards those facing illness or nearing the end of life. It is my belief that by confronting the inevitability of death, we can gain a deeper appreciation for the present moment and cultivate greater empathy towards others.

16. You mention finding beauty in the face of mortality. Could you elaborate on what you mean by that?

Finding beauty in the face of mortality is a central theme in my memoir, “When Breath Becomes Air,” and it reflects my personal journey as a neurosurgeon facing a terminal illness. By mentioning the concept of finding beauty, I wanted to convey that even in the midst of profound suffering and the certainty of death, there are still moments of remarkable grace and meaning.

One aspect of finding beauty in mortality lies in recognizing the inherent value and preciousness of life. When confronted with our own mortality, we tend to gain a heightened awareness of the fleeting nature of existence. This understanding can lead to a deeper appreciation for the small joys and simple experiences that make life meaningful. From witnessing a beautiful sunrise to cherishing intimate connections with loved ones, these moments become imbued with an intense poignancy.

Moreover, finding beauty in the face of mortality involves embracing the full spectrum of human experience, including both joy and sorrow. It is through acknowledging the fragility and transience of our lives that we can truly savor the depth and richness of each moment. This perspective allows us to develop a profound sense of gratitude for the time we have and the opportunities that lie before us.

17. How did your pursuit of excellence in your career intersect with your quest for understanding the fragility of life?

I believe that my pursuit of excellence in my career as a neurosurgeon intersected intimately with my quest for understanding the fragility of life. Throughout my medical training, I strived to become the best physician I could be, constantly pushing myself to excel in my field. This pursuit of excellence allowed me to gain a deep understanding of human anatomy and physiology, honing my surgical skills to provide the best possible care to my patients.

However, it was during my own battle with terminal cancer that the fragility of life became starkly apparent. As a doctor, I had witnessed countless patients grappling with mortality, but facing my own mortality brought a profound personal dimension to this experience. The realization that life is incredibly fragile forced me to confront the limits of medicine and the inevitability of death.

This intersection between my pursuit of excellence and my quest for understanding the fragility of life led me to contemplate the true meaning and purpose of my work. It made me question the role of medicine in the face of mortality, especially when faced with incurable illnesses. I came to understand that while excellence in medical practice is crucial, it should be accompanied by an appreciation for the vulnerability and impermanence of life.

18. What advice would you give to others who are facing a life-altering diagnosis or grappling with existential questions?

Facing a life-altering diagnosis or grappling with existential questions is undoubtedly one of the most challenging experiences one can go through. Based on my own journey and understanding, here is the advice I would offer:

Embrace your emotions: Allow yourself to feel the full range of emotions that arise during this challenging time. Acknowledge your fears, sadness, anger, and confusion. It’s important to give yourself permission to grieve and process these emotions.

Seek support: Surround yourself with a strong support network of loved ones, friends, and professionals who can help you navigate this difficult period. Reach out for emotional support, practical assistance, and guidance. Remember, you don’t have to face this alone.

Educate yourself: Take the time to understand your condition and prognosis. Gather information from reputable sources, consult medical professionals, and ask questions. By educating yourself about your situation, you can make informed decisions about your treatment options and future plans.

19. What legacy do you hope to leave behind through your writing and your story?

Through my writing and my story, I hope to leave behind a meaningful legacy that resonates with readers long after I am gone. My foremost aspiration is to inspire others to reflect on the human experience and contemplate the profound questions of life, death, purpose, and existence.

I aim to convey the importance of empathy and compassion in navigating the challenges we face, particularly in the realm of healthcare. By sharing my own journey as a neurosurgeon and a patient, I aspire to foster a deeper understanding of the complex intersection between science and humanity. I want to instill in readers a sense of awe for the intricate workings of the brain while highlighting the significance of preserving the dignity and individuality of each person.

Moreover, I hope that my writing encourages individuals to find meaning and purpose in their own lives. I believe that by reflecting on mortality, we can gain clarity about our values and priorities. Through my experiences and reflections, I want to empower readers to embrace life’s uncertainties and make the most of the time they have.

20. Finally, can you recommend more books which share similar themes with “When Breath Becomes Air”?

I can certainly recommend books that share similar themes with “When Breath Becomes Air.” Here are a few suggestions:

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End” by Atul Gawande – Like “When Breath Becomes Air,” this book explores the intersection of medicine and mortality, focusing on end-of-life care and how we can approach death with dignity.

The Last Lecture” by Randy Pausch – In this book, the author, a professor diagnosed with terminal cancer, shares his reflections on life, achieving childhood dreams, and leaving a legacy. It offers profound insights on living fully even in the face of imminent mortality.

Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor E. Frankl: This classic work delves into the author’s experiences as a Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist, exploring the search for purpose and meaning in life, even amid extreme adversity.

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