Dr. Paul Kalanithi wrote a powerful memoir titled “When Breath Becomes Air.” Kalanithi died prematurely of lung cancer and he wrote this book as he was dying – which may explain the depth and perspective with which he looks at his life as a physician. Even in his dying, Dr. Kalanithi raises a number of issues about what it means to live fully as a physician.
As his cancer progressed, Dr. Kalanithi’s physician told him he most likely had just five good years left. He writes:
“She (my doctor) pronounced it, but without the authoritative tone of an oracle, without the confidence of a true believer. She said it, instead, like a plea. Like she was not so much speaking to me as pleading, a mere human, with whatever forces and fates truly control these things. There we were, doctor and patient, in a relationship that sometimes carries a magisterial air and other times, like now, was no more, and no less, than two people huddled together, as one faces the abyss. Doctors, it turns out, need hope, too.”
I wonder if you have had patient experiences like this, where you were “two people huddled together, as one faces the abyss.” Kalanithi calls those moments “holy and wholly impossible: in taking up another’s cross, one must sometimes get crushed by the weight.”
And so doctors need hope too. It is an important reminder that physicians need the same things that any human needs: hope, rest, relationship, sleep and everything else on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Especially in those times when you are taking up another’s cross, or staring into the abyss with one of your patients.