“When Breath Becomes Air”

Paul Kalanithi was an American neurosurgeon who, in his dying moments, wrote a sort of autobiography of his personal and professional life. This book took two parts. One in which he was the doctor. Treating complex brain pathologies with a fervour of success. Aspiring towards pioneering research, at the brink of stepping into a life-long dream. Only to be diagnosed with lung cancer which would eventually kill him. Forcing him to turn his 20 year life plan into more of a 20 month plan. The second part is about his journey from diagnosis onwards. The courage and persistence he must have shown in the face of death isn’t something I can possibly even begin to imagine. And yet as a future doctor it is something that I will not only have to begin to imagine but see daily. Emotions are always running high in medicine. There’s always something going wrong and death is inevitable.

Many doctors I know have told me that in light of so much pain and misery the only way to escape is by becoming resistent. Putting up a wall. A front. So that every time you see a mother crying for her unborn baby, you don’t too break down and cry. When you see a sister’s tears for a brother who will never speak to her again, you do not also think of your own sibling and feel dizzy at the thought of loosing them. Death is part of life. But when you are a doctor, you’re the one who must hold in the tears and emotion and offer solutions and maybe even hope. Or at the very least clarity and the truth. It’s not your sorrow to share. Emotional blunting some call it but I think it is a form of survival. How else would you be able to get through day after day of telling people they have incurable cancers and disorders that no medicine will help them survive?

My issue though is that I’m not just a future doctor. I am also a human being. I’ve also been granddaughter who has lost a granddad, a niece whose lost an uncle. And that excruciating pain of sorrow never dulls. Its terrifying. Its not unique. My issue is that I know I should be able to separate my own pain and that of the patient’s but how can I? Empathy and sorrow seeing other people’s pain is what makes us human and yet it is that very quality that can run away with you and turn a perfectly good doctor into an emotional, distraught mess.

This book explores the journey of a doctor as he becomes a patient to his own disease. It is a very difficult book to read. But one that reaches into your heart and pulls it right out. It explores death from a different perspective – from a person who has experienced it both for his patients and for himself. As said in the book: ‘dying in their fourth decade is unusual now, but dying is not’

Dying is part of life. Death surrounds us. But it isn’t always dark, depressing and terrible. Sometimes, some people only start living when death is in sight.

That’s all for now.



Autopsies: Part 2 of death, dying and dissection

Disclaimer: Sensitive material. Please read with caution. All views expressed are mine. This is not meant to be an educational piece but simply a sharing of my opinions and experience with autopsies. 

Note: In the following discussion I am talking only about autopsies which are required by law. Personal autopsies and hospital related autopsies are slightly different. The laws around it are different as are the circumstances in which they are conducted. For more information on autopsies, please click here

Autopsies are rare. They don’t get done for everyone who has died. Having an autopsy means that the professionals are suspicious of the cause of death or simply they hadn’t seen the person in the weeks preceding death. Thus meaning that they can’t confidently say that ‘yes X is the cause of death’.

Autopsies are inherently violent. Even if they are done in a fairly warm, well lit room with people who are chatty and smiling. The concept of opening up the body and extracting the organs for examination is nothing short of violent.

Autopsies are sombre in concept. After all an autopsy is only done if the cause of death wasn’t ‘natural’ or ‘obvious’ enough.

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