“The life and identify of each patient lies in your hand. You may be perfect but the world is not. This is the secret you should know. You will fail. Your hand or prediction will go wrong. But you will toil for your patient to succeed. You cannot attain perfection always. However, try to reach it relentlessly.” – Dr Paul Kalanithi
Dr Paul Kalanithi was born in a catholic family and he earned two Bachelor’s degrees and completed his Masters in English literature from Stanford University and M.Phil at Cambridge. He earned a medical degree from Yale School of Medicine. He went back to Standford for a neuro-surgery specialization and a post doctoral fellowship in neuroscience. When he was about to be declared as a professional neurosurgeon that he was diagnosed of his fatal lung cancer and imminent death as the type of cancer he had was inoperable. He was just qualified to be a neurosurgeon after a decade of training and was about to start his family life with his wife, Lucy, who is also a medical doctor when he was pained to learn the news of his own cancer. Being a professional neurosurgeon and having read through many CT scan films, the fate is that he had to review and diagnose his own fatal disease.
At the moment of being diagnosed with lung cancer he felt his several years of search for the meaning of his own life started evaporating and completely emptied. He heaved his last breath in 2015, at the age of 36 and his daughter, Cady was only nine months old. In between life and death the air he was breathing slowing down, becoming mere flow of air he was narrating his feelings, emotions and sufferings, the transition from doctor to patient in a more objective but moving way.
As a part of learning neuroscience he was serving a hospital where patients with serious head injuries were treated. He learnt during his tenure as a surgeon and treating brain damaged patients that the same brain that relates and connects will divide and break it. At a critical point of brain surgery a few millimeter deep wrong cut might lead a patient permanently crippled or made dumb, which made him realize the subtle thread between life and death.
A doctor’s son in the Arizona desert town of Kingman, Dr Kalanithi was exceptional in his academic and related strivings. He was trying to combine his knowledge in English literature with medical science, trying to address questions that are more of metaphysical in nature. No need to mention that his peers were surprised to know when he was trying to write a thesis on ‘the medicalization of personality’” in the work of the poet Walt Whitman. He found it magical to play the language of life with language of brain, its neural circuitry.
While he was trying to find out where really the confluence of biology, philosophy, ethics and literature happen his inner voice urged him to choose medicine. Therefore he joined Yale School of Medicine, where he met his beloved wife, Lucy. Dr Kalanithi was inspired by a book, ‘How we die’ authored by Sherwin B Nuland that highlights about the precariousness of a surgeon in playing between life and death of patients. He realized the predicament of living between birth and death that eventuated to courageously live a day at a time: “Before my cancer was diagnosed, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. After the diagnosis, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when”.
When he was painfully wrestling with his own mortality he shared his intention to have a child with his wife. When Lucy asked him “Don’t you think saying goodbye to your child will make your death more painful?” and he responded “Wouldn’t it be great if it did?”
Though each one of us is confronting our own mortality every day we do not realize it in a normal course of life’s event. But the real question Dr Kalanithi inspires us to think over is that ‘it is not how long, but rather how, we will live’ our lives. One would realize how deeply he was inspired by the words of Samuel Beckett based on which he founded the narrative of his own life, “I can’t go on … I’ll go on.”