In this room I had pronounced patients dead

When breath becomes air.

It was my primary care doctor, calling with the chest X-ray result: my lungs, instead of being clear, looked blurry, as if the camera aperture had been left open too long. The doctor said she wasn’t sure what that meant.

She likely knew what it meant.

I knew.

Lucy picked me up from the airport, but I waited until we were home to tell her. We sat on the couch, and when I told her, she knew. She leaned her head on my shoulder, and the distance between us vanished.

I received the plastic arm bracelet all patients wear, put on the familiar light blue hospital gown, walked past the nurses I knew by name, and was checked in to a room—the same room where I had seen hundreds of patients over the years. In this room, I had sat with patients and explained terminal diagnoses and complex operations; in this room, I had congratulated patients on being cured of a disease and seen their happiness at being returned to their lives; in this room, I had pronounced patients dead.

From When Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalanithi. (Longer extract – Bookseller’s website)


Paul Kalanithi was a 36 year-old neurosurgeon when he received the news that he had metastatic lung cancer. He died aged 37, leaving this short unfinished memoir.

The book became a best-seller, receiving praise from medics as well as the general public. He describes the experience from his perspective as both a patient and a doctor. His life and relationship with his wife, Lucy, is thrown up and down by the diagnosis, treatment, remissions and relapse. He goes through all the stages of grief in finally coming to terms with his illness.

Kalanithi studied English literature and history of science before medicine. He met his wife Lucy at medical school, and their daughter was born during his illness. Lucy contributed the book’s epilogue.

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Contributed by

Daniel D’Souza (Aberdeen)

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