When Breath Becomes Air. Lucy Kalanithi Interview

Last summer I took a road trip to Canada and during the drive I listened to the book When Breath Becomes Air. That was a year ago, and I still think about that book, almost daily. When Breath Becomes Air is the autobiographical account of the final 2 years of neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi life. Paul was in residency, age 36,  when he was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer, to which he ultimately succumbed. The book tells the tale of the nuts and bolts of his treatment, his transformation from doctor to patient, but more importantly, it was about time. His time was limited, just like all our time is limited, but with a terminal diagnosis, in the face of death, he asked the question, “What makes life worth living?” What do you do with your time, what’s important? Do you work if you’re physically able, do you spend all of your remaining time with your family? Time can feel infinite, especially when you’re young, but as individuals, time is our most precious resource, and it’s a nonrenewable resource. So how do you spend it?

Paul died before completing his manuscript and his wife, Lucy Kalanithi, a Stanford internist, put it together and wrote the epilogue. Since then, she’s become a passionate a vocal advocate for helping others choose the heath care and end of life experiences that best align with their values.  In May 2017, at Essentials of Emergency Medicine in Las Vegas, I sat down with Lucy for a live interview on why she does what she does, some of the experiences she and Paul when through, how her perspectives on life and medicine have changed, what she thinks when she sees a patient with the sniffles, what if everyone died like a doctor, and reframing the question where there is a devastating diagnosis or even a run of bad luck from, “Why me?” to “Why not me?” I’d encourage you to listen to this particular podcast episode all the way through and not in small chunks. It builds momentum as the conversation progresses and at the end, culminates in what are some beautiful words of wisdom…Life is not about avoiding suffering.


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