Munching Apples: On Paul Kalanithi’s “When Breath Becomes Air” by Andrew Bomback

Let Me Tell You What Your Book Is About by Andrew Bomback, Prose

These honest recollections, confessions of how the mind and the body will grasp at anything to survive the residency years, how Kalanithi found his “munching apples” moments in the trauma bay with some harmless jokes and a soggy ice cream sandwich, are why I consider When Breath Becomes Air essential reading for any doctor-in-training, why I push the book on so many medical students, residents, and fellows.

Let Me Tell You What Your Book Is About by Andrew Bomback

Let Me Tell You What Your Book Is About by Andrew Bomback, Prose

All the essays in this column (including the one you’re reading now) began, in my mind, as “book reviews.” Eventually, I came to think of them as “book-inspired essays.” In moments of honesty, though, I’ve called them “personal essays disguised as book reviews.” I view myself as a husband and father, a physician, and a writer, in that order; therefore, not surprisingly, these essays almost exclusively focus on my marriage, my children, my doctoring, and my struggles with the written word. I mean these essays as the highest compliment to the writers whose books inspired each piece. Again, borrowing from David Shields in defense of his own self-obsessed book reviews: “There’s always an implied love story between me and the writer – me loving the book, loving the writer.”

Role Playing by Andrew Bomback

Let Me Tell You What Your Book Is About by Andrew Bomback, Prose

I asked Scalise this question (over email) after finishing his book. He’d never heard the term “patient role” but championed the performance aspects of illness encounters. “Medical interactions are theater,” he wrote back. “They are, in so many cases, very rehearsed on the doctor’s side, but also on the patient’s side, too. The ‘medical crisis template’ is so widespread in popular culture as a genre, and has been for so long, that its influence on real life patient-hood is pretty deeply ingrained. In that sense, slipping into that ‘role’ of ‘Medical Patient’ can feel almost reflexive. The transfer of control to the hospital staff, the ‘strong face’ one is expected to put on, the opinions about the food, the long-form small talk with your patient ‘roommate’ – it can feel stagey or rote in the way that being a commercial airline passenger can, which is unsettling, because you’re typically at a hospital for a very vulnerable, intimate, and (to you) unique reason.” He followed up on that answer: “My instinct as a patient has always been to destabilize role expectations between my doctors and me – sometimes in good ways, sometimes in ways that definitely did not work at all – if only to try and get us to something a little more human.”

G is for Grief by Andrew Bomback

Let Me Tell You What Your Book Is About by Andrew Bomback, Prose

Helen Macdonald mentions D.W. Winnicott in H is for Hawk, but she does not relay the pediatrician’s famous line, “It is a joy to be hidden but a disaster not to be found.” Training the goshawk is a way for her to go into isolation after her father’s death. Lisicky pores through his friend’s old emails. Alexander lies in bed, after her sons have left for school, and dreams of her husband. Eventually, they all want to be found, which is why they’ve written these books. Likewise, I suspect my patients feel the relief of being found when they unburden themselves to me in the safety of my consultation room.