Wednesday, October 18, 2017

My Book Review on When Breath Becomes Air

I am almost complete with reading a book called When Breath Becomes Air, which was published posthumously. The author has passed away and it hit home to me because he died at the age where I had just turned last month. However, all this time he was doing really well in life in the medical field as a neurosurgeon and he was going to complete his residency to become a professor when illness struck him. From the symptoms which included excruciating back pain, it was clear to him that there was a high possibility that he was having cancer. But did not want to conclude it yet as he would need to go for further check ups, MRI scans and so on. 

The thing that struck him the most how his life was parallel to that of his patients and that now the role is reversed now. While every doctor aims to save people's lives, he also acknowledged that there was so much they can do up to a point where death would be easier for the patients. But he also became more aware that a doctor-patient relationship is just as important because a doctor would be the one eventually breaking the bad news and that life from then on, would change dramatically. He had to prepare them for the worst. They could not be the person they once were and this would affect not only their life but of their family's lives as well. Things may look up or but mainly, these life threatening illnesses can never fully give them back their previous lives. 

How you live your life last week may not be how you live your life now. So the most important thing right now, when we still have the chance to do so, is to live life in the present. When you're sick or dying from a terminal illness, time becomes a double edged sword. You want to live as long as possible but the illness has ravaged your health and drops your energy level and you spend time in complete weakness, in excruciating pain or drugged out from the medicine. 

The part that got me was how he started to ease back into his previous life as a neurosurgeon with much difficulty given that he had been going through chemotherapy and taking a lot of medication which made him weaker and after relearning how to use his hands and legs from physiotherapy. However, he slowly started to get back into the groove when he realised that he had to work even harder if he were to graduate or his 7 years of hard work would be put to waste. So each day, he started to put in more effort with the help of even more medication and started to call the shots. The gruelling schedule took a toll on his body but he took it in his stride because at the same time, he felt that he was adding value to his life despite having the cancer, which at this stage was in remission.

While looking through the records of his patients, he decided to type in his own name to check his own records from his recent health checkups. That was when he discovered there was a new large tumour at his lung, which made him take a pause and realise that he would need to go through the whole process of recovery again. However, being a doctor and knowing better, he may be in for the long haul. And he started to have a mindset that whatever he was doing at the hospital may be his last time, from the case he was handling in the operation room which he felt could be the last to the conversation he almost had with a colleague who had to go as his pager went off. That was when he became vulnerable, crying and thinking that this would be the last time he would be at the hospital and that he would never have that conversation again. Death could be looming for him, he didn't know when but there was a possibility so he didn't want to create a false hope.

The cancer came back fiercer than ever and his usual dose of medication and even chemotherapy started to not do him any good. At the same time, he wanted his wife to continue living and not be lonely after his death and he decided to have a child with her, through IVF. When his child was born, he was already so weak and slowly succumbing to the possibility of death. But he still gave his attention to his infant during his conscious moments by playing with her on his chair. 

What the book taught me was that death is inevitable for everyone, whether you're a high flier or not. We have to rethink about what matters to us most in life and how we can add value to our lives. And also to live in the present moment. While we often think about the future, we sometimes forget to simply live because we get too caught up chasing our dreams that we're not giving attention to the relationships and friendships that we have forged, hence losing them in the process. How we live our life now, may not be how we live our life tomorrow, knowing that anything can happen.

So while his career has initially driven his relationship apart from his wife, the cancer brought him and his immediate family closer. The book is peppered with literary quotes and phrases because the writer was also lover of English literature. So it was quite philosophical as well. It also wrote about the lives of doctors and of his own as a medical student right up to a neurosurgeon pursuing further career advancement. 

While he could not finish the book when the illness rendered him too weak, his widow wrote the last chapter describing his final days. While the book is engaging like it makes you literally turn the pages, it was quite a challenge reading it if you're a non literary fan. However I would say his experiences as a neurosurgeon was very interesting and eye opening as well. 

I hope you pick up this book from your local stores or library. Last I checked the library catalogue, this book had even 7 reserves in one of the libraries. But I got it as an e book which I read in the iPad and later my phone at work. I hardly do book reviews so I hope this is somehow useful review :)

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