When Words Become Timeless

Posted by Ed Reilly from Ogilvy CommonHealth Worldwide — North America on September 14, 2018


As those communicating with physicians and patients, there is always a need to build deeper empathy with these audiences. This is commonly done through observation and interviews, but there is also an opportunity to learn from someone who has written or documented their experiences firsthand. In this instance, we learn about the implications of the perception of time, and the need for patients to understand the journey that lies ahead of them and the role physicians can play.


The opportunity to acquire deeper empathy:

Dr. Paul Kalanithi’s writings as a physician and patient provide an especially revealing and insightful view into both roles. He sees through the surgical mask from the point of view of a physician and terminally ill patient.


Dr. Kalanithi, a neurosurgeon, was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer in May 2013. As a terminally ill patient, he wrote the #1 New York Times bestseller When Breath Becomes Air. Dr. Kalanithi could be considered a renaissance man who had a poetic gift with words, and pondered how even a delicate slip of his hands could mistakenly affect one of his patient’s senses or even their sense of self.


He consumed and utilized literature as a tool to “reflect on life.”1 The Samuel Beckett quote, “I can’t go on, I’ll go on,” provided a motto for living at a time he needed it most. At a young age, Dr. Kalanithi thought he would be a writer,2 and his later circumstances helped him realize, “It’s possible to lift a pen longer than the scalpel.”2


Beyond the book, Dr. Kalanithi has other writings, articles, and interviews where he explores the perception of time, mortality and meaning, and how physicians should help patients navigate the ending chapter of life.


The paradox of communicating the potential of more time:

Dr. Kalanithi’s perception of time as a neurosurgeon was linked to progress, “(and while) focused in the OR, the position of the clock hands might seem arbitrary, but (they were) never meaningless.”3 As a terminally ill patient no longer able to work, his perception of time morphed: “With little to distinguish one day from the next, time began to feel static… Time began to feel less like the ticking clock, and more like the state of being… Now the time of day meant nothing, the day of the week scarcely more so.”3


As marketers, how do we communicate the potential of more time provided by a therapy to a patient whose whole perception of time has shifted? When the calendar blurs, it is about being fully in the moment more so than having additional days that have lost their meaning.


Discussing the perception of time is not an esoteric exercise. It is inextricably linked to meaning and to personal identity. Even answering the common question “What do you do?” becomes difficult: Dr. Kalanithi struggled with saying, “I am a neurosurgeon, was a neurosurgeon, had been and will be again…”1 In addition, your awareness of mortality becomes very granular. What do you do with the time you have left? Down to what are you going to do today.


The need to communicate the journey ahead to patients:

Dr. Kalanithi recognized part of the role of a physician “(is) the art of delivering the (bad) news.”2 From his personal experience with patients, he believed it was best to “be vague but accurate.”4 However, once a terminally ill patient himself, he wanted much more of a definitive answer from his oncologist on how much time he had left. As a physician and patient, he came to believe the “job as a physician is not just to lay out medical facts. Illness is a transformative experience for patients. The role of a physician should be to lay out (the) emotional and experiential landmarks.”2


There may be an opportunity for marketers to provide tools to physicians and patients to discuss not only decisions in the near term, but what can come next. Patients seek and deserve a holistic view of whatever their disease and journey may entail, and physicians may need the resources and education to provide it.


Dr. Paul Kalanithi passed away March 9, 2015, at the age of 37, and is survived by his wife, Lucy, and young daughter. His lasting words can provide greater empathy for patients and physicians alike, the paradox of the perception of time, and ultimately, the guiding role physicians can play in the final changing season of life.



1. “A Strange Relativity: Altered Time for Surgeon-Turned-Patient,” Stanford Medicine Magazine 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d5u753wQeyM (accessed June 8, 2018).


2. “Days are long, years are short: Paul Kalanithi on time,” Feb. 23, 2015. 1:2:1 Podcast. http://med.stanford.edu/news/all-news/one-to-one/2015/days-are-long-years-are-short-paul-kalanithi.html (accessed June 8, 2018).


3. “Before I go: Time Warps for a young surgeon with metastatic lung cancer,” Paul Kalanithi, Stanford Medicine Spring 2015. http://stanmed.stanford.edu/2015spring/before-i-go.html (accessed June 8, 2018).


4. “How Long Have I Got Left?” Paul Kalanithi. New York Times. Jan. 24, 2014.