I usually sit down and bash out a review shortly after turning the last page, mindful that I harness the swirling thoughts and ideas I have about the latest book before they are lost to the ether (or one too many glasses of single malt scotch). Subtle and refined I’m not. So here I sit, staring at that blinking cursor, wondering if I can do this book justice with my customary slapdash manner. And then I decide that it will have to do, because whether or not my method is sound is not the point. Getting the emotion and main point across to you, Dear Readers, is. I will never come up with a better way to say READ THIS BOOK AS IF YOUR LIFE (and DEATH) DEPENDED ON IT. Because it does.
Paul Kalanithi was a bright and talented neurosurgeon. He had a BA and MA in English literature as well as a BA in human biology from Stanford, an MPhil in history and philosophy of science and medicine from Cambridge and graduated cum laude from the Yale School of Medicine and was inducted in the Alpha Omega Alpha national medical honor society. Then he returned to Stanford to complete his residency training in neurological surgery and a postdoctoral fellowship in neuroscience. As he was finishing his residency, planning his next career steps and life with his wife Lucy, also a doctor, he was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. Everything came to a screeching halt.
“It occurred to me that my relationship to statistics changed as soon as I became one.”
Now this is no story of some arrogant doctor being humbled and made a better man by his diagnosis. Dr. Kalanithi was already seeking to understand the meaning of life and death as a doctor and a human, focusing on preparing the patient and the family for what lay ahead, as well as brilliantly executing the needed surgery and other care. For many years, he had carefully considered what he could do to enrich the quality of life and, just as importantly, the quality of death for these patients. And now here he was on the other side of the examination table and still he yearned to find answers, provide meaning.
The book was published posthumously, with an elegant forward my Abraham Verghese and an epilogue of uncommon grace by his wife. Verghese writes:
“ Be ready. Be seated. See what courage sounds like. See how brave it is to reveal yourself in this way. But above all, see what it is to still live, to profoundly influence the lives of others after you have gone, by your words…………In the silences between his words, listen to what you have to say back.”