“When Breath Becomes Air” Reflections

           I finally got chance to read Dr. Paul Kalanithi’s memoir “When Breath Becomes Air” over Christmas break. It really was a heavy punch in the gut, and it couldn’t have come at a better time. It was such a needed reminder of the brevity of life, the sacredness of the medical profession, and the immeasurable value of our human relationships, particularly those between physician and patient.
          Early in the book, Dr. Kalanithi asks the question, “If the unexamined life was not worth living, was the unlived life worth examining” (31)? In Dr. Kalanithi’s life is an example of both a profound reflection coupled with an active and intentional engagement of people, even at great personal cost.
          I was particularly challenged by his view of medicine, and of his patients. Regarding his work, he writes, “People often ask if it is a calling, and my answer is always yes. You can’t see it as a job, because if it’s a job, it’s one of the worst jobs there is” (151). He was referring to his field of neurosurgery, but I think this can be said of the medical profession as a whole. Sure the pay is substantial, whatever field you pursue, but the personal cost is steep, even after the training is done.
          And let’s not forget the enormity of assuming the care of a person. For Dr. Kalanithi, he was responsible for not just his patients’ physical health, but the entire weight of the whole of the individual. His call was to “protect life—and not merely life but another’s identity, it is perhaps not too much to say another’s soul…” (98). He understood that “all of medicine…trespasses into sacred spheres. Doctors invade the body in every way imaginable. They see people at their most vulnerable, their most sacred, their most private” (49). It is a high calling , and a tremendous privilege to become a physician.
          What hit most poignantly was the stark contrast of the sense of purpose and urgency reflected in Dr.Kalanithi’s life, even before his cancer diagnosis, to where I am at now. Sadly I confess that 2016 has slowly drifted into a complacency where personal relationship (both with God and people) and my own personal calling have become obligations, and entertainment designed for rest and renewal has crossed into the realm of numbing escape. This was a much welcomed wake-up call.
          God, forgive me for mistaking physical presence with connection, thinking competency and efficiency was enough, and treating the sacred as ordinary. Grant me conviction and courage, by Your grace and through Your Spirit, to make 2017 different.
Be very careful, then, how you live-not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is. Ephesians 5:15-17

The Lone Medical Ranger

Medical School was a lonely time. Sure there were people around and I had friends, but this whole process was such a training in a dependence on myself. We live in a highly individualistic culture to begin with, but medicine cultivates further the lone ranger attitude. Things are hard? Tighten up your scrubs and pull yourselves up by your crocs, we have patients to save! We should be like Paul, who endured such hardships: stoning, hunger, floggings, and shipwrecks just to name a few. There’s kingdom work to be done, so let’s get to it! We have God on our side, that’s all we need, right?

I’ve only realized just recently much of what Paul was able to endure and accomplish was because of the support of others. Sure, God was his strength, but part of that strength was supplied through fellow believers. In every letter you see his partnership with so many different people, for example Timothy, Priscilla and Aquila, and Titus. One look at Romans 16 and it’s obvious that Paul didn’t operate by himself. And in his letters there were frequent requests for prayer (e.g., Romans 16:30-32, Ephesians 6:19-20, Colossians 4:3-4).

Paul understood that the Christian life, and especially the ministry life, is not meant to be lived solo.  In your medical training, it will be a huge temptation to blow off church because you have to study or you are too tired post-call.  Don’t be deceived, we need the support of fellow believers, not just to do God’s work, but to make sure that we hold on to the faith until the end. Enlist the prayers of your church community. Seek out the Christians in your class and residency program. Don’t neglect the important relationships in your life. Who is at least one person that you can come alongside and walk with in this journey?

23 Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. 25 Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching. ~Hebrews 10:23-25