When Breath Becomes Air


Paul Kalanithi

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When Breath Becomes Air Characters

Paul Kalanithi

The subject and author of the memoir. When Breath Becomes Air is first and foremost an account of Paul’s life as well as his exploration of what makes a virtuous and meaningful life in the… read analysis of Paul Kalanithi

Lucy Kalanithi

Paul’s wife, who works as an internist (a type of doctor). She and Paul meet in grad school at Yale and marry after four years. After graduating, they move to Stanford together. Though their marriage… read analysis of Lucy Kalanithi

Emma Hayward

Paul’s oncologist. Emma is an intelligent, caring, and judicious doctor. She helps Paul through his struggle with cancer in the same way that Paul aimed to help his own patients with their struggles with mortality… read analysis of Emma Hayward

Paul’s Mother

Paul’s mother grew up in India before marrying Paul’s father. She values education highly and works to make sure that when the family moves from Westchester County in New York to Kingman, Arizona, that… read analysis of Paul’s Mother

Paul’s Father

A cardiologist and a devout Christian. At first Paul is hesitant to emulate his father, as his father was largely absent from Paul’s childhood because of his long hours at his practice. Paul’s father moves… read analysis of Paul’s Father
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Cady Kalanithi

Paul and Lucy’s infant daughter (whose full name is Elizabeth Acadia), born just over a year after Paul is diagnosed with cancer and eight months before Paul passes away. Despite knowing that Paul’s time… read analysis of Cady Kalanithi


The head of the lab in which Paul works during his training as a neuroscientist. He is a professor of electrical engineering and neurobiology and a second-generation Indian, like Paul. When he is diagnosed with… read analysis of V


A general surgery resident at Stanford who is a few years senior to Paul. The two become friends as they work traumas together, creating inside jokes about patients’ prognoses. The two rely on each… read analysis of Jeff
Minor Characters
Paul’s co-resident and friend at Stanford. She provides a parallel to Paul and serves as an example of how his life’s trajectory might have continued, had he not been diagnosed with cancer.
Shep Nuland
a renowned surgeon-philosopher who lectured at Yale when Paul attended. Paul is particularly struck by his book, How We Die, which confronts the topic of death head-on and provides the model of a doctor who goes above and beyond for his patients.
An eight-year-old whom Paul meets during his first year in residency at Stanford. A surgeon removes a brain tumor pressing against Matthew’s hypothalamus, but his hypothalamus is damaged in the process and he is rendered a slave to his appetites.
Paul’s younger brother, who comforts him when he is diagnosed and also supports him through treatment.
Paul’s older brother, a neurosurgeon who also had attended Stanford, and who serves as another role model for Paul in the medical field.
A resident working in the same ob-gyn in which Paul works while he is in medical school.
A fellow med school student who is on the same hospital rotation as Paul.