When Breath Becomes Air
Dr. Paul Kalanithi was a successful neurosurgery resident at Stanford and a loving husband when he was suddenly diagnosed with advanced lung cancer. He died two years later at the age of 37, soon after his infant daughter was born. His critically-acclaimed memoir, When Breath Becomes Air, debuted at #1 on the New York Times bestseller list in 2016 and has moved both the medical and literary worlds with its honest and heartwrenching exploration of mortality and how, in Paul’s words, coming face to face with your own death changes both nothing and everything. Paul’s widow Dr. Lucy Kalanithi—an internist at Stanford who wrote the book’s stunning epilogue—speaks with intelligence and compassion about the writing of When Breath Becomes Air, the power of literature to illuminate the human condition, and the book’s compelling message about living a meaningful life. She reflects, too, on her own experience: standing alongside her husband, shepherding his book to publication after his death, and now—as a physician and widowed mother—carrying the book forward as it finds its place in the canon of books on mortality.
Caregiving: Pain, Joy, and Coping
In the wake of the death of her husband, a brilliant neurosurgeon who became a terminally ill patient overnight, Dr. Lucy Kalanithi speaks with honesty and eloquence about the practical and emotional challenges of caring for her late husband—and also their baby daughter, who was born during his illness—and learning that along with caregiving’s challenges can come increased intimacy and even joy. She shares the support and strategies that enabled her to care for her seriously ill husband while also taking care of herself. She reflects on what we might do—in our communities, our society, and our healthcare systems—to ensure the well-being of patients and families as they face these critical challenges together.
When her husband was diagnosed with terminal cancer, Dr. Lucy Kalanithi’s knowledge of end-of-life care, an ever-present topic for the medical community, radically shifted to an experience that was much more immediate and intimate. With the unique perspective of a physician-turned-caregiver and widow, Dr. Kalanithi speaks with clarity and understanding about the human experience of dying. Death is, in many ways, more human experience than a medical event—and the medical and ethical components of that experience are inextricably linked. Dr. Kalanithi talks about the importance of the doctor-patient relationship; the current state of affairs of end of life care for doctors, patients, and families; and the necessity of frank personal—and societal—conversations about death.
Learning to Live While Learning to Die
The Kalanithis—Paul, a neurosurgeon, and Lucy, an internist, both at Stanford—were both experienced in treating terminally ill patients. Then Paul himself was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer and, overnight, became a patient struggling to live. The future he and Lucy had envisioned suddenly looked very different. Together, they faced the questions, What makes a life worth living? What do you do when the future you hoped for no longer exists? How do you find meaning in the face of inevitable suffering? Dr. Lucy Kalanithi speaks to their experience of embracing life in the face of death, coping with uncertainty and adversity, and making the powerful decision to have a child despite Paul’s illness—and how ultimately, they found that life is not about avoiding suffering, but rather about creating meaning.
Meaning in Medicine
An internist who trained at the Yale School of Medicine and the University of California-San Francisco, Dr. Lucy Kalanithi now practices at the Stanford School of Medicine, where she also completed a postdoctoral fellowship in healthcare value and delivery innovation. Based on her dual experience as a physician and a caregiver to her late husband Paul Kalanithi—a neurosurgeon who died of lung cancer in 2015—she asks on behalf of herself and other healthcare providers: What is at the core of the physician-patient (or provider-patient) relationship? What power do healthcare providers hold, and how can we use it most beneficially? What might make difficult healthcare conversations more healthy for all of us? How do we, as healthcare providers, build meaningful work and meaningful lives? Is inevitable illness and death a failure of the medical system or an opportunity for human connection?
On Grief: My Marriage Didn’t End When I Become A Widow
In the months after her husband’s death at age 37, Dr. Lucy Kalanithi wrote a widely-shared New York Times essay called “My Marriage Didn’t End When I Became a Widow.” She found solace in the writer C.S. Lewis’ observation that “bereavement is not the truncation of married love, but one of its regular phases… what we want is to live our marriage well and faithfully through that phase, too.” Dr. Kalanithi reflects on her personal experiences with mourning—the outward expressions of loss—and bereavement—the unavoidable state of facing a loss. She reflects on the individual and universal nature of the grief experience, its unpredictability, and what she came to understand during her own grief: that even when a loved one dies, love doesn’t.
The Crossroads of Healthcare Value and Human Values
Dr. Lucy Kalanithi, an internist at Stanford who also completed a postdoctoral fellowship in healthcare value and healthcare delivery innovation, speaks from the perspectives of both a physician and a family caregiver (to her late husband Paul Kalanithi) about the true value of healthcare. Coming from a perspective uniquely informed on both the medical and personal fronts, Dr. Kalanithi touches on questions such as: Are we getting what we are hoping for—and paying for—from our healthcare system? How can we improve the value of healthcare by bettering care and lowering its financial and emotional costs? How can we all—patients, families and healthcare providers—help each other to live and die well?