Certain personal attributes are incredibly important to becoming and being a truly excellent neurosurgeon. Among them, compassion, empathy, leadership, a tenacious work ethic, and a sense of responsibility, ownership and dedication to truly caring for patients. Such qualities and behaviors are innate to a person; they cannot be taught, but rather fostered by a neurosurgery training program.
This award honors those attributes in the name of Dr. Paul Kalanithi (1977-2015), a neurosurgeon and writer, who trained at the Yale School of Medicine (MD ’07) and Stanford’s neurosurgery residency program.
Paul grew up in Kingman, Arizona, before attending Stanford University, from which he graduated in 2000 with a B.A. and M.A. in English Literature and a B.A. in Human Biology. He earned an M.Phil in History and Philosophy of Science and Medicine from the University of Cambridge before attending medical school. In 2007, Paul graduated cum laude from the Yale School of Medicine, winning the Lewis H. Nahum Prize for outstanding research and membership in the Alpha Omega Alpha medical honor society. He returned to Stanford for residency training in neurological surgery and a postdoctoral fellowship in neuroscience, during which he authored over twenty scientific publications and received the American Academy of Neurological Surgery’s highest award for resident research.
Paul was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer in 2013, his sixth year of neurosurgery residency. Despite the emotional and physical implications of his own disease, Paul continued to be dedicated to his vocation and to care for his ailing patients, graduating in 2014. He was noted by co-residents to be a true mentor and was recognized for helping residents identify their strengths and weaknesses in an effort to help them achieve their best. He balanced his medical career with his passion for literature, writing several widely-read essays (including “How Long Have I Got Left?” in the New York Times and “Before I Go,” which received over 4 million views on The Washington Post’s website) and a memoir, When Breath Becomes Air, reflecting on the physician-patient relationship and the challenge of facing mortality. Roughly two years after his diagnosis, Paul passed away in 2015 at the age of 37. When Breath Becomes Air, published posthumously, debuted at #1 on The New York Times nonfiction bestseller list. Paul is survived by his large, loving family, including his wife, Dr. Lucy Kalanithi (YSM ’07) and their daughter Cady.
The Dr. Paul Kalanithi Award for Professional Excellence in Neurosurgery will be given each year to the Yale Neurosurgery resident who displays the traits of an exceptional professional, as Dr. Kalanithi did, in honor of the surgeon, writer, striver and healer he was.