Just over a year ago, I received a first draft of an article for Stanford Medicine magazine that electrified me. It was gorgeous. It was heartbreaking. Its last words delivered a jolt of joy and made me cry. And this was just a first draft.
Now that essay, published in our spring 2015 issue as “Before I go,” is part of “When Breath Becomes Air,” the book Stanford neurosurgery resident Paul Kalanithi, MD, wrote in his last months of life about confronting an early death. The book is as compelling and beautiful as the essay. And just as likely to make you cry. Our next issue of Stanford Medicine will include an excerpt.
That I received the essay at all seemed at the time a small miracle. In September 2014, Kalanithi had agreed to write for the magazine, and two months later I had more than a magazine editor’s usual trepidation about whether the writer would meet the deadline.
I knew the cancer was wriggling through all medical defenses and that he was still fighting it with chemotherapy. I suspected the chemotherapy side effects were brutal. (I now know he wore silver-lined gloves to protect his fingertips, cracked from chemotherapy, while using his computer’s trackpad.) I hoped he was spending his last days doing what was most important to him, so I was loath to pressure him to finish his draft. Yet I selfishly hoped he had enough time to get the story done.
My deadline worries evaporated on Nov. 6 when, right on time, Kalanithi sent a first draft. It was magnificent. A month later the polished version came in, we published it and it proceeded to blow the minds of readers around the world.
Janet Maslin speaks for me in her New York Times review of the book:
Part of this book’s tremendous impact comes from the obvious fact that its author was such a brilliant polymath. And part comes from the way he conveys what happened to him — passionately working and striving, deferring gratification, waiting to live, learning to die — so well. None of it is maudlin. Nothing is exaggerated. As he wrote to a friend: “It’s just tragic enough and just imaginable enough.” And just important enough to be unmissable.
Kalanithi’s wife, Lucy Kalanithi, MD, a physician at Stanford, wrote the book’s epilogue and has penned an essay in the New York Times on their marriage before and after his death. It’s also unmissable.
Previously: Stanford neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi, who touched countless lives with his writing, dies at 37 and For this doctor couple, the Super Bowl was about way more than football and Stanford neurosurgeon/cancer patient Paul Kalanithi: “I can’t go on. I will go on.”
Photo courtesy of Lucy Kalanithi