Paul Kalanithi, 1977-2015

A gifted neurosurgeon who touched many readers with his reflections on mortality has died tragically young

April 2, 2015

Paul Kalanithi was born in New York on 1 April 1977 but moved with his family to Arizona at the age of 10. He studied at Stanford University and graduated in 2000 with a BA and an MA in English literature as well as a BSc in human biology. He then decided to switch track, securing a master’s in the history and philosophy of science and medicine from the University of Cambridge and going on to the Yale School of Medicine. He graduated in 2007 cum laude, winning the Lewis H. Nahum Prize for his research on Tourette’s syndrome.

It was at this point that Mr Kalanithi returned to Stanford for the rest of his life, as a resident in neurological surgery and postdoctoral fellow in neuroscience. He was starting to build a name for himself through publications that won the American Academy of Neurological Surgery’s highest award for research when he developed a cough, night sweats and constant back pain – and in May 2013, although he had never been a smoker, was diagnosed with metastatic lung cancer.

Initially despairing and inclined just to prepare for death, Mr Kalanithi managed to go back to work as chief resident in late 2013 after the cancer responded well to treatment. Yet a relapse the following spring led to intensive chemotherapy and a prolonged period in hospital – ending just days before the birth of his daughter, Cady, on 4 July 2014.

In a number of personal essays in The New York Times, Stanford Medicine and elsewhere, Mr Kalanithi wrote movingly about “travers[ing] the line from doctor to patient” and discovering he had “the same yearning for the numbers all patients ask for” because “the path forward would seem obvious, if only I knew how many months or years I had left”.

He described the endless well-meaning anecdotes he had received “along the lines of my-friend’s-friend’s-mom’s-friend or my-uncle’s-barber’s-son’s-tennis-partner has this same kind of lung cancer and has been living for 10 years”. He noted that “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. But now I knew it acutely.”

He also paid tribute to his infant daughter for the “joy unknown to me in all my prior years” that she had brought him.

Mr Kalanithi died on 9 March and is survived by his wife, Lucy Goddard Kalanithi, and daughter.

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