In his best-selling posthumous memoir When Breath Becomes Air, 37-year old neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi reflected on how his battle with lung cancer led him on a search for priorities and values.
When a terminal diagnosis gave him a year or two at the most to live, he talked with his doctor about work options. She said ‘Many people, once diagnosed, quit work entirely–others focus on it heavily. Either way is okay.’
He wondered what aspirations he should let go of during his final days. ‘Well, I can’t tell you that, ‘she replied, ‘I can only say that you can get back to surgery if you want, but you have to figure out what’s most important to you.’
Dr. Kalanithi remembered her ‘oft repeated refrain’ to ‘find his values.’ He wanted to leave behind a record of his quest to find his values and answer the question, ‘what’s most important to you.’
Perhaps it takes mortality at any age, but especially an untimely passing, to bring these questions to mind. Life is brief at best. No one can do everything. And as he came to believe, when the end of life nears, values are all that matter.
Kalanithi narrowed his values down to bonding with family, healing his marriage, having a child, and returning to faith. When he changed from doctor to patient he realized, that ‘it was the pastoral role I sought.’ Neurosurgery was a means to an end. Care and compassion were most important to him.