Relationships

Family News

I wanted to share some very sad news today. My sister’s husband Paul died on Monday night of lung cancer. Here is the obituary describing his beautiful life…

*****

Stanford neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi, MD, who wrote eloquently and movingly about facing mortality after being diagnosed with lung cancer, died of the disease March 9. He was 37.

Kalanithi, who had recently completed his neurosurgery residency at the Stanford University School of Medicine and become a first-time father, was an instructor in the Department of Neurosurgery and fellow at the Stanford Neurosciences Institute.

“We are all devastated by the tragedy of his sudden illness and untimely demise,” said Gary Steinberg, MD, PhD, professor and chair of neurosurgery. “Paul spent seven years with us. He’s very much part of our neurosurgical family. It affects us like a death in a closely knit family.”

Kalanithi’s essays, “How Long Have I Got Left?” for The New York Times and “Before I Go” for Stanford Medicine, reflected his insights on grappling with mortality, his changing perception of time and the meaning he continued to experience despite his illness.

He closed his Stanford Medicine essay with words for his infant daughter: “When you come to one of the many moments in life when you must give an account of yourself, provide a ledger of what you have been, and done, and meant to the world, do not, I pray, discount that you filled a dying man’s days with a sated joy, a joy unknown to me in all my prior years, a joy that does not hunger for more and more, but rests, satisfied. In this time, right now, that is an enormous thing.”

In a March 10 email, Suman Kalanithi, one of Kalanithi’s brothers, wrote, “Yesterday my brother Paul passed away about two years after being diagnosed with metastatic lung cancer. He did so with customary bravery and poise, and died in peace on his own terms with his family around him. My brother achieved more in his short life than what most people do in twice that time. He was a good doctor, a good husband, a good father and a good man. I am extremely proud of him, both in life and in death. Rest in peace, my beloved brother.”

Undergraduate years at Stanford

Kalanithi was born in New York, moving at age 10 with his family to Kingman, Arizona. He went to college at Stanford, where he was involved in Stanford Sierra Camp and the Leland Stanford Jr. University Marching Band. He graduated in 2000 with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English literature and a bachelor’s in human biology.

“If you asked me when I was 17 what I would be doing with my life, I would have said, ‘Oh, I’d definitely be a writer.’ For me, literature was always a powerful reflecting tool for thinking about life,” Kalanithi said in an interview for a Stanford Medicine magazine video. “But I found after I completed my undergraduate studies and thought about what I was really passionate about, medicine was in fact the perfect place.”

He next studied the history and philosophy of science and medicine at the University of Cambridge, earning a master’s degree, before attending the Yale School of Medicine. In 2007, he graduated from Yale cum laude, winning the Lewis H. Nahum Prize, awarded for his research on Tourette’s syndrome, and membership in the Alpha Omega Alpha medical honor society. At Yale, he also met classmate Lucy Goddard, whom he married in 2006.

He returned to Stanford for a residency in neurological surgery and a postdoctoral fellowship in neuroscience, during which he authored more than 20 scientific publications and received the American Academy of Neurological Surgery’s highest award for research.

Cancer diagnosis

But then, in Kalanithi’s sixth year of residency, his weight dropped precipitously, and he developed night sweats, unremitting back pain and a cough. In May 2013, Kalanithi, who had never smoked, was diagnosed with stage-4 non-small-cell EGFR-positive lung cancer.

He first reaction was to prepare to die and to encourage Lucy to remarry, he wrote in his New York Times essay. But his cancer responded to treatment, he regained strength and he returned to work in late 2013, completing his residency last year. He and Lucy also decided they wanted to have a child. Elizabeth Acadia “Cady” Kalanithi was born on July 4, 2014.

In addition to returning to surgery, Kalanithi shared his reflections on illness and medicine, authoring essays in The New York Times, The Paris Review and Stanford Medicine, and participating in interviews for media outlets and public forums.

Despite a relapse in the spring of 2014, Kalanithi continued to speak to the public and write, including working on a book.

His essays tapped an outpouring of gratitude from readers—from young people who had lost parents to seniors facing their own mortality, to teachers desiring to share his essay with students. “It completely surprised me that it resonated with so many people,” Kalanithi wrote of the response to the Times piece in a 2014 San Francisco Magazine essay. “I still get an email nearly every day from someone with heart disease or depression or another medical illness, saying that it helped clarify his or her own situation. The second, and really pleasing, development was the number of doctors who emailed to say that they planned to give the article to their patients or incorporate it into medical school curricula to help students understand the human impact of disease. That was really touching.”

This letter from a reader in response to the Stanford Medicine essay is representative: “Dr. Kalanithi, I could not hold my tears while reading your story. It is a sad story, but at the same time it is an amazing story to share. These are the type of stories that stop us, and make us re-think life and the way that we are living it. Your story has touched me deeply in a very positive way.”

Kalanithi appeared to live by his words. After his diagnosis, he continued to joke, and laugh, enjoy the company of family, friends and colleagues, spend time appreciating nature and go wild at football games. He also helped raise money for lung cancer awareness. As top fundraiser (due, he said, to an overwhelming response from his friends, family and colleagues—including many from Stanford), he won the Chris Draft Family Foundation’s Lung Cancer Survivors Super Bowl Challenge, which landed him and family in Arizona for the 2015 Super Bowl.

Continuing to teach

In what proved to be his last days of life, Kalanithi worked on a teaching module with the director of Stanford’s palliative care education and training program, VJ Periyakoil, MD. “The module would teach the lessons he learned from being on both sides of the aisle—being a neurosurgeon at the top of his game to being a patient with cancer. We talked about how being the doctor is all about having control and wielding power, while being a patient is all about loss of control and feeling vulnerable,” said Periyakoil, a clinical associate professor of medicine.

“His ‘dual citizenship’ as a doctor and as a seriously ill patient had taught him that respectful communication is the bedrock of all medicine. We talked about the design of the module and how we could tailor it to make our medical students understand that the so-called soft skills of medicine are the truly hard skills to teach and to learn.”

As a chief resident, Kalanithi was a skilled mentor, said current chief resident Anand Veeravagu, MD. “He has a way of identifying your strengths and weaknesses to elevate your skills in unison. Gifted,” Veeravagu said, adding that Kalanithi was also a dedicated advocate for the human being inside each of his patients.

“As surgeons, we often become so entrenched in treating the disease that we forget who it is we are treating,” Veeravagu continued. “I remember when Paul returned to the neurosurgical service and started operating again back in late 2013. At that time, I was Paul’s shadow, learning and supporting however possible.

“We walked out of the operating room corridor together, toward the intensive care unit and I was complaining of being tired and worn out—and he looked at me and said, in his very satirical voice, ‘You know I have lung cancer, right?’ I looked at him with great surprise, as if such things shouldn’t be said out loud, and I’ll never forget what he said to me next. ‘Don’t forget what you do, and who you do it for. These are people who you can help, and you shouldn’t forget that.’ Paul is, to me, the hero of all heroes.”

Gifts in Paul’s memory may be made online at https://makeagift.stanford.edu. (Please select “The Stanford Fund,” and fill in the “Special Instructions” field with the following text: “Dr. Paul Kalanithi Memorial Fund.” You do not need to select any of the “Options” checkboxes.) The fund will be used to recruit and support rural American students in the pursuit of a transformative education, a cause Paul cared deeply about.

*****

Thank you so much for your support throughout. I haven’t said much (to respect Lucy and Paul’s privacy online), but I wanted you to know how much your kind thoughts have meant to all of us.

Mysteries, Yes

Truly, we live with mysteries too marvelous
to be understood.

How grass can be nourishing in the
mouths of the lambs.
How rivers and stones are forever
in allegiance with gravity,
while we ourselves dream of rising.

How two hands touch and the bonds
will never be broken.
How people come, from delight or the
scars of damage,
to the comfort of a poem.

Let me keep my distance, always, from those
who think they have the answers.

Let me keep company always with those who say
“Look!” and laugh in astonishment,
and bow their heads.

—Mary Oliver

  1. Olivia says...

    I’ve read your blog for years and I love it so much. This is my first comment because I couldn’t not say anything. I finished Paul’s novel last night and cried so much. It is such an incredibly sad and beautiful story. I kept thinking of Lucy and how amazingly strong and brave she is, just like Paul. Cady is so lucky to have spent time with Paul and to continue growing up under the guidance of Lucy; I have no doubt she will turn out to be an incredible person. I hope Lucy knows what a phenomenal soul she is. I also hope she knows that Paul’s book is touching the hearts of so many people and helping us all live better.

  2. As i read this story, i am deeply saddened. Such a fine young Dr. to have gone too soon. And we wonder why. My story that kept me reading and reading everything I could find, is that our daughter was diagnosed in 2014 with a maningioma. She has had the most wonderful care, and the greatest neurosurgeon at UAMS, in Arkansas, we could have ever been blessed with. Angela had many complications and infections, just due to her mostly getting pneumonia. Eleven weeks we spent in the hospitol, my daughter and I, and Dr. Serletis was always there. Always, when needed. Angela is still not walking due to a stroke during emergency surgery the second morning. The patients your loved one had, were very lucky, as we are too, to have the greatest Dr. and we were blessed. My family prays for you, and can not imagine what this was like. And, if any of you would want to, or like to corresspond, my e-mail is, robinlynne72207@yahoo.com Thoughts for all of you, and give that baby a hug from our family. There is something here to your story that led me to you. Maybe brain surgeries, neurosurgeons, I don’t know. Being in ICU for 11 weeks, being with many neurosurgeons, seeing so many patients going through so much. Some alone, some with family, a few with only a chaplain to talk to. Just that special some one to talk to. I am going to go. Feel free to e-mail. What ever you want to do. Sincerely, Robin Sanders

  3. Jess Cooper says...

    I haven’t read your blog in a long while and came across it again through a feature article in Refinery29. I am deeply saddened, utterly devastated and so so sorry for your family’s loss. I remember when you first mentioned Paul’s diagnosis. I remember the lump that formed in my throat when I read his New York Times Essay. A truly remarkable man. Amazing father and husband.

    My thoughts are with your family, especially Lucy and Elizabeth.

  4. Joanna – I am so very sorry for your loss. Ever since you first posted that your brother-in-law was sick, I have kept him in my thoughts and prayers. His piece in the NYT was so moving. I cannot imagine what your sister is going through. I am keeping her, Cady, and all of your family in my thoughts.

  5. Thank you for your great courage and bravery in sharing your loss. My heart, and deepest sympathies, go to you, family and friends at this difficult time.

  6. I am so sorry, Joanna. My thoughts go out to Lucy, your family, and Paul’s. What an inspiring life.

  7. oh gosh, i am so, so sad to read this news. paul sounds like an absolute gem, one who was able to shine brightly for an amazing amount of people, if only for a brief time. my condolences to you, and your sister, and your family. <3

  8. I am so sorry for your loss. I went to college with Paul, and although we weren’t close, I was saddened to hear of his passing. Thank you for your posts, as I feel like I’ve gotten to know him a little better. It’s helped ease my sadness. He was truly a gifted person, and wise beyond his years. I wish you and your family comfort during this difficult time.

  9. My thoughts and prayers go out to your sister, your niece and your family. I watched the video…so touching. I am sorry for your loss

  10. Praying for you, Lucy, the Goddard family and Kalanithi family!!! May you find peace amidst the confusion of loss.

  11. “I’m sorry” doesn’t seem to be enough…. His words will be remembered for decades to come and his spirt will live on through your sister, niece and your entire family. So glad to have had exposure to him through you. All of this and so much more is his remarkable legacy. My prayers and thoughts are with each of you.

  12. I’ve read your blog for a while and never have posted…I was very touched by Pauls’ essays. I am so sorry for your sister and your family’s loss. Sincerest condolences…..
    Theresa

  13. I am sorry for your loss.

  14. I am so very sorry for your loss. Your family are in my thoughts and prayers.

  15. I’m so sorry for your loss. Paul sounded like an outstanding human being.

  16. That video was heartbreaking and beautiful. I am overwhelmed and touched and thank you for sharing this with us. I will take this with me as I spend time with my own kids and in my own life. He is an inspiration and so wise. I am sending love to you and your family.

  17. So sorry for your loss. Please let your sister and niece know that there are people across the globe keeping them in their thoughts. God bless your family

  18. Wow what an amazing man! I’m so sorry for your loss and my heart breaks for your sister and that sweet baby.

    XX-Myrna

  19. My deepest condolences to your family and especially to your sister, Lucy.

  20. So sorry for your loss.

  21. What a sad news. I’m so sorry for your loss. My condolences to Lucy and Cady and you and your family. Big hug.

  22. Oh Joanna, I’m so sorry. I randomly read his Stanford letter yesterday while waiting for my husband in the car with my own baby girl. When he returned, I was crying. He was so thoughtful, so eloquent and a beautiful writer. Thinking of you and your family.

  23. I am so, so sorry for this huge unfathomable loss – but, what a joy to have read about such a man. His words to his daughter will I hope be a touchstone for her for her whole life to come.

    Much love you and your family’s way.
    xoxoxo