I have decided to include both of these five star reads together, as they are related in the field of neurosurgery. Henry Marsh, now retired, was one of Britain’s most revered neurosurgeons, and he writes about his personal experiences of treating patients in Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death, and Brain Surgery. Paul Kalanithi, on the other hand, was one of the most academically gifted neurosurgeons in the United States, who tragically died of lung cancer at the age of thirty-seven. When Breath Becomes Air is his memoir, both of his career and his own diagnosis, which was left unfinished at his death, and has been finished with an incredibly touching epilogue written by his wife, Lucy.
Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery by Henry Marsh *****
I purchased Henry Marsh’s utterly splendid Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery from a Glasgow charity shop for the princely sum of £2. I was immediately beset by many, many people telling me how wonderful it was; needless to say it did not remain upon my TBR pile for too long.
Filled with honesty and compassion, Do No Harm… is a fantastic book, which takes one to the next level of illness narratives; rather than reading about a patient’s experience, we are given the expertise and understanding of one of the country’s leading neurosurgeons. He speaks about his own place within the hospital, and always shows so much empathy toward those he treats, sometimes successfully and sometimes not so.
I thought that I might be a little squeamish for the book, but because Marsh writes so well, the descriptions of surgery are seamlessly joined to the stories either side, which certainly takes emphasis away from drillbits and blood. Do No Harm… is wonderfully structured and compelling from the outset, and I felt as though I learnt an awful lot whilst reading. Marsh’s unshakeable enthusiasm for his craft is nothing short of remarkable, and his account of his working life is incredibly human, captivating the reader from start to finish.
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi *****
Abraham Verghese’s foreword to Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air is both admirable and fitting: ‘Be ready. Be seated. See what courage sounds like. See how brave it is to reveal yourself in this way. But above all, see what it is to still live, to profoundly influence the lives of other after you are gone, by your words’.
Certainly, Kalanithi was an incredibly brave, and admirable man who, after gaining degrees in English and Human Biology, and a Master’s in English Literature, decided to devote his career to neurosurgery. His account, written toward the very end of his life and left unfinished, has been incredibly well written, and is compelling from the outset.
Despite his age of just thirty-seven when he passed away from virulent cancer, Kalanithi comes across as wise and intelligent. When Breath Becomes Air is important and rich; throughout, he discusses so much – neurosurgery, his training, his childhood, falling in love with his wife Lucy, mortality, and ethics. The impact of the death of a loved one upon the family left behind is an idea which Kalanithi comes back to time and time again, as is the very idea of ‘dying well’.
Kalanithi is ambitious even during his illness, and his remarkable achievements are all the more inspirational for it. When Breath Becomes Air should be read by everyone.