Kalanithi, who died March 9 at 37, wrote about diagnosing patients himself to being the one diagnosed

By Alexandra Zaslow
Updated March 12, 2015 07:00 PM

Paul Kalanithi went from physician to patient without much warning.

The Stanford neurosurgeon was diagnosed with stage-4 lung cancer in May 2013 and died on March 9 at 37 years old, according to an obituary on the Stanford Medicine website.

Before his diagnosis, Kalanithi was in his sixth year of residency at the Stanford University School of Medicine when he noticed a drop in his weight, consistent back pain, a cough and started to develop night sweats.

His cancer responded to treatment and he was able to return to work in late 2013 to complete his residency, though he eventually relapsed toward the end, according to Stanford Medicine.

After a prolonged hospitalization, which included chemotherapy, Kalanithi and his wife, Lucy Goddard Kalanithi, welcomed their first child, Elizabeth Acadia “Cady” Kalanithi, on July 4, 2014.

Kalanithi wrote about his experiences facing death for The New York Times and for the Stanford Medicine site. In his piece called "Before I Go", he wrote about hoping to live long enough so that his daughter would have some memory of him.

“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,” he wrote. “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.”

“He had an enviable capacity to be present with Cady in every moment,” Melanie Hayden, who went through Kalanithi’s neurosurgery residency with him, told PEOPLE. “His love for Cady is not bound by space nor time.”

Hayden said that despite having metastatic lung cancer during his residency, Kalanithi’s focus was always on his patients.

In his 2014 essay "How Long Have I Got Left?" for The New York Times, Kalanithi wrote about the role reversal and how he went from diagnosing patients himself to being the one diagnosed.

“The problem is that you can’t tell an individual patient where she is on the curve,” he wrote of telling terminal patients how long they have left to live. “It’s impossible, irresponsible even, to be more precise than you can be accurate.”

Without knowing how much time he had left, Kalanithi turned to writer Samuel Beckett, who shared these seven words: “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.” Kalanithi wrote in The Times that he would repeat the phrase over and over again until he stopped thinking about the timeline and gradually returned to work.

“I’m knocking the dust off scientific manuscripts,” Kalanithi wrote. “I’m writing more, seeing more, feeling more. Every morning at 5:30, as the alarm clock goes off, and my dead body awakes, my wife asleep next to me, I think again to myself: ‘I can’t go on.’ And a minute later, I am in my scrubs, heading to the operating room, alive: ‘I’ll go on.’ ”

“From the moment of his diagnosis to the moment of his passing, Paul was always clear, thoughtful and courageous with a remarkable ability to think of others needs in even the most dire of situations,” Hayden said. “He knew what was important to him in life and in death, achieving all these things with grace, valiancy and pensive composure.”