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When Breath Becomes Air


Personal Thoughts

This exquisite memoir by an idealistic young neurosurgeon asks What makes a life worth living? and makes a profound graduation gift—especially for aspiring doctors and nurses.

Summary Notes

  • Brave New World founded my nascent moral philosophy and became the subject of my college admissions essay, in which I argued that happiness was not the point of life.
  • If the unexamined life was not worth living, was the unlived life worth examining?
  • In our rare reflective moments, we were all silently apologizing to our cadavers, not because we sensed the transgression but because we did not.
  • Preemies, if they survived, apparently incurred high rates of brain hemorrhages and cerebral palsy. Then again, my older brother, Suman, had been born almost eight weeks premature, three decades earlier, and he was now a practicing neurologist.
  • At those critical junctures, the question is not simply whether to live or die but what kind of life is worth living.
  • I had met her in a space where she was a person, instead of a problem to be solved.
  • Openness to human relationality does not mean revealing grand truths from the apse; it means meeting patients where they are, in the narthex or nave, and bringing them as far as you can.
  • How little do doctors understand the hells through which we put patients.
  • The reason doctors don’t give patients specific prognoses is not merely because they cannot. Certainly, if a patient’s expectations are way out of the bounds of probability—someone expecting to live to 130, say, or someone thinking his benign skin spots are signs of imminent death—doctors are entrusted to bring that person’s expectations into the realm of reasonable possibility. What patients seek is not scientific knowledge that doctors hide but existential authenticity each person must find on her own.
  • Years ago, it had occurred to me that Darwin and Nietzsche agreed on one thing: the defining characteristic of the organism is striving.
  • Shouldn’t terminal illness, then, be the perfect gift to that young man who had wanted to understand death?

When Breath Becomes Air

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