Just saw this on Twitter posted by Sean Swarner and loved it....
Since a cancer diagnosis in 2008, I have always taken reading material with me on all hospital trips. For one visit, which took nine hours, my reading material included a posthumously published memoir: Paul Kalanithi’s “When Breath Becomes Air.”
Reviewers have emphasized the pathos of Dr. Kalanithi’s fate. On the threshold of a promising medical career, the 36-year-old resident at Stanford University received a diagnosis of Stage 4 lung cancer. His book spoke to me not only about cancer but also about the imperative, yet imperiled, connection between the arts, the humanities and the medical sciences. Dr. Kalanithi believed that the arts and humanities provide crucial tools for comprehending the body under siege.
Like many cancer memoirs, “When Breath Becomes Air” begins with diagnosis: Dr. Kalanithi flips through CT images of his lungs matted with tumors. Then a flashback traces his childhood and education. In college and graduate school, Paul Kalanithi majored in English, although he went on to study philosophy and then to train in neuroscience and neurosurgery, earning high honors along the way. His background, along with his descriptions of the challenging lessons he learned during his medical training, serves as a startling retort to the dictum of the so-called “two cultures”: C.P. Snow’s idea that the humanities and the sciences remain deeply divided in Western intellectual thought and never the twain shall meet.
As a student, Dr. Kalanithi understood that “literature provided the best account of the life of the mind, while neuroscience laid down the most elegant rules of the brain.” Words function as “an almost supernatural force,” bringing human beings “into communion,” but that process exists “in brains and bodies, subject to their own physiological imperative, prone to breaking and failing.” What was the relationship between the discourse of emotions and that of neurons?
Operating on regions of the brain that control language and therefore on “the crucible of identity,” neurosurgeons must consider “what kind of life exists without language” and “what kind of life is worth living.” Because Dr. Kalanithi needed to address these profoundly philosophical questions, he knew that “when there’s no place for the scalpel, words are the surgeon’s only tool.”