Tag Archives: medical

Review: When Breath Becomes Air

41ozmb3iwvl-_sx348_bo1204203200_Recap: Paul Kalanithi is on the up-and-up. He is an aspiring neuroscientist with big dreams of performing difficult surgeries, saving lives and eventually writing a book in his later years. With degrees in medicine and literature, he has his whole life mapped out. But his marriage is failing. And with his graduation from residency within his grasp, he begins to experience fatigue and horrific back pain. As a doctor, he knows this can only mean one thing: cancer.

After lots of tests, doctors and people in disbelief, it turns out he is right. Kalanithi has a rare form of cancer, at the age of 36. He goes into treatment. He strengthens his relationship with his wife. He fights it. He gets better. And then he gets worse. He knows the end is near. And suddenly he must fast forward his life plans. But by how much? How much time does he have left? He ultimately learns there’s no way of knowing, and he has no choice but to accept that. But as his life comes to an end, he writes this beautiful, touching memoir. Kalanithi now lives on forever in his words and leaves the most important lessons he’s learned for all of us.

Analysis: I purchased this book in the final days of my father’s life. At the time, I was desperate to understand — medically — what was happening to him. He had Alzheimer’s and was unconscious, so I knew he had  little, if any, logical brain activity. But his breaths were fewer and fewer each minute, and his skin had begun the mottling process. I was suddenly hearing terms I’d never heard before and wanted to know everything about them. Ultimately, the hospice nurses encouraged my mother and I to leave my father’s side and not come back. I wondered if she was trying to imply that maybe he was holding on simply because we were in the room with him. Or maybe she just didn’t want us to see all the other horrible — and gross bodily things — that happen when a person dies. So we left, and my husband and I visited what has always been one of my favorite places in my hometown:  Barnes and Noble. I purchased this book along with a self-help book. I was seeking answers that day.

My dad died two days after that. And yet, I didn’t begin reading When Breath Becomes Air until five months later. Mostly I was busy and wasn’t reading very much at all. But when I went away on a short vacation five months later, I knew this was a book I could knock out in just a few days. (I am not a fast reader.) Retrospectively, I wonder if I waited to read it because I subconsciously knew I needed time to digest my father’s death before reading about Paul Kalanithi’s death. Or maybe I was jealous of the way Paul passed away — not jealous of his age or his condition but of his ability to process his oncoming death in a way that my father mentally could not.

Either way, this book helped me process not just my father’s death, but death in general, which was something I desperately needed. After reading this book, I have accepted that ultimately we all face death and never know when it will hit us. In the way mortality often does, this memoir reaffirms the necessity  of living life to the fullest and cherishing each day. But it also tells us that it is okay if certain dreams aren’t achieved in our lifetime. It’s not what we do that’s important, but who we do it with and how we lived — in more general terms. Though he spends most of his life seeking the meaning of life and death, Paul Kalanithi doesn’t find his answer until his end. But he does the most heavenly, generous thing of all: he gives us all a glimpse into what he learned, in the hopes that we will all live more fully. So I will do that — for Paul and for my dad.

Get When Breath Becomes Air in hardcover for $17.50.

Or on your Kindle for $12.99.

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Review: Ice Bound

Recap: When a person is diagnosed with breast cancer, it’s one thing. But when the diagnosis becomes national news because the patient also happens to be living at the South Pole for a year, it’s another thing entirely. Add to that the fact that the story is true, and you have one hell of a book on your hands. Such is the case with Dr. Jerri Nielsen’s Ice Bound: A Doctor’s Incredible Battle for Survival at the South Pole.

Ice Bound is an autobiography of Dr. Jerri Nielsen, who — after a messy divorce and abandonment by her children — decides to escape from her life for a bit by working at the South Pole. The book details her decision to live  there, the work she accomplished while in Antarctica, and what the life of a “Polie” is like. Nielsen finds her work as the Polie physician to be challenging — due to outdated and insufficient equipment — but exciting — after all, how many times do you get to visit the South Pole??

As time passes, we come to know Nielsen’s Polie friends and understand how familiar they become with such ungodly temperatures — 100 degrees below freezing. We also get a glimpse of Nielsen’s relationships, since she includes copies of her emails sent while at the Pole. But what’s key is that the South Pole’s winter lasts 8-and-a-half months, during which time no planes can land on the Ice to bring supplies or visitors, because of the deeply cold temperatures. And that’s the exact time Nielsen notices a lump on her breast — a cancerous lump that she must study and treat herself.

Analysis: Typically, the subject of cancer in books, movies, and TV is an excuse to make people cry, no matter how poor the writing and/or acting is. But here, Nielsen is telling the story, and she’s not telling us so we can feel bad for her. She’s telling us because she’s in complete disbelief about her own experience. By the end of the novel, it becomes clear that writing this book was cathartic for Nielsen — something she had to do to come to terms with the twists and turns that were thrown her way.

Her writing is straight-forward. Instead of attempting to explain how she felt, she showed it with the use of anecdotes and emails. She includes the reader in her life, events, and circle of friends, giving a sense of warmth and familiarity to each of the characters. This was very effective in that — again — the reader doesn’t cry, but simply understands. And anyway, the woman has cancer. There’s no reason to waste precious book space by saying she feels scared and tired — we know that already.

MVP: Jerri Nielsen is the obvious choice here, but I like to go with the not-so-obvious people. In that case, Big John, Nielsen’s best friend at the Pole. He takes care of her, emails her parents, measures the lump on her breast, learns to assist with her chemotherapy sessions, and tucks her into bed — and it’s purely platonic. We should all have a friend like Big John.

Ice Bound is available now in paperback for just $2.30!


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