Breath taking The power, fragility, and future of our extraordinary lungs

Michael J. Stephen

Book - 2021

"We take an average of 7.5 million breaths a year and some 600 million in our lifetime, and what goes on in our body each time oxygen is taken in and carbon dioxide expelled is nothing short of miraculous. 'Our lungs are the lynchpin between our bodies and the outside world,' writes Dr. Michael J. Stephen. And yet, we take our lungs for granted until we're incapacitated and suddenly confronted with their vital importance. In Breath Taking, pulmonologist Michael J. Stephen takes us on a journey to shed original and much-needed light on our neglected and extraordinary lungs, at a most critical societal moment. He relates the history of oxygen on Earth and the evolutionary origins of breathing, and explores the healing powe...r of breath and its spiritual potential. He explains in lay terms the links our lungs have with our immune system and with society at large. And he offers illuminating chronicles of pulmonary research and discovery-from Galen in the ancient world to pioneers of lung transplant-and poignant human stories of resilience and recovery-from the frantic attempts to engage his own son's lungs at birth to patients he treats for cystic fibrosis today. Despite great advances in science, our lungs are ever more threatened. Asthma is more prevalent than ever; rising stress levels make our lungs vulnerable to disease; and COVID-19 has revealed that vulnerability in historic ways. In this time, Breath Taking offers inspiration and hope to millions whose lungs are affected and vital perspective to us all"--

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2nd Floor 612.24/Stephen Checked In
Instructional and educational works
Creative nonfiction
New York : Atlantic Monthly Press 2021.
Main Author
Michael J. Stephen (author)
First Grove Atlantic hardcover edition
Physical Description
xv, 311 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm
Includes bibliographical references (pages [273]-293) and index.
  • Prologue: Lungs = Life
  • Part I. The Past: The Lungs Shaped Our Beginnings, Physically And Spiritually
  • Chapter 1. Oxygen, Then Existence
  • Chapter 2. We Must Inhale and Exhale. But Why?
  • Chapter 3. An Infant's Drive to Breathe
  • Chapter 4. The Extraordinary Healing Power of the Breath
  • Part II. The Present: Our Lungs-And Us-Against The World
  • Chapter 5. A Window onto the Immune System
  • Chapter 6. The Lungs and the Common Good
  • Chapter 7. Nicotine Seduction and Stem Cells
  • Chapter 8. Health Is Not the Absence of Disease: Climate Change
  • Chapter 9. Exposures Unnecessary: Time Does Not Heal All Wounds
  • Part III. The Future: The Lungs Provide A Vision Of What's To Come
  • Chapter 10. Curing the Incurable
  • Chapter 11. Getting Personal with the Lungs
  • Chapter 12. The Breath and the Voice
  • Chapter 13. The Miracle of Lung Transplant
  • Part IV. Life, Love, And The Lungs
  • Chapter 14. The Greatest Medical Story Never Told
  • Chapter 15. Cystic Fibrosis, the Most Heartbreaking Lung Disease
  • Afterword
  • Acknowledgments
  • Notes
  • Image Credits
  • Index
Review by Choice Review

Stephen (Thomas Jefferson Univ.) provides a wide-ranging discussion of medicine and society through the lens of lung function and pathology. Chapters focus on connections between breathing and belief systems; fetal and neonatal development; lungs and the environment; and lung pathologies and their treatments. A large proportion and the best part of the text is devoted to the history of medicine, the development of patient care, and anecdotes from Dr. Stephen's training and work as a pulmonologist. The writing is personal, sensitive, and engaging. Unfortunately, the book is rife with errors, ranging from trivial (e.g., the 19th century as a 200-year period), to factual (e.g., CO2 decomposing to hydrogen), to absurd (e.g., a man who has lost his voice learning lip reading to compensate for it). Individually, none of these errors is damning, but there are dozens of them scattered through the book. Further unfortunate characteristics include numerous references to "the breath" and "life force," with an undertone of vitalism. Again, Stephen takes time to simplify science concepts to grade-school levels but fails to explain complex medical jargon. Breath Taking has the potential to be a wonderful book. Sadly, these errors and infelicities smother its potential. Summing Up: Not recommended. --Roger M. Denome, MCPHS University

Copyright American Library Association, used with permission.
Review by Booklist Review

"Life and breath are synonymous," writes pulmonary physician Stephen, who contends that breathing is too often taken for granted. His educational and passionate book successfully unites the true importance of our lungs and advances in medical science. The numbers are impressive: An average adult takes 20,000 breaths per day. We inhale/exhale approximately 10,000 liters of air daily. Five hundred million alveoli (air sacs in the lungs) handle that gas exchange. Stephen highlights the healing ability of focused breathing to enhance mental health and reduce chronic pain, the threat of climate change and air pollution to our lungs, and how the "connectivity of our air" allows infections like COVID-19 and tuberculosis to spread. Types of lung diseases, voice and speech, and tobacco addiction are well-covered, with Stephen explaining that cigarette smoke contains not just nicotine but roughly 7,000 additional ingredients including arsenic, DDT, and cadmium. The physics of soap bubbles, Buddhism, and fish gills also receive attention. Best of all are Stephen's stories of courageous patients, including a girl with cystic fibrosis who receives a successful lung transplant, which just might take your breath away.

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Library Journal Review

Stephen (pulmonology, Thomas Jefferson Univ.) draws attention to the lungs: one of our most neglected, yet most vital organs. Even the medical establishment ignores our lungs; lung cancer is responsible for more deaths each year than breast, pancreatic, and colon cancer combined but receives a far smaller proportion of research dollars. Stephen discusses the place of the breath in many religious traditions, the evolution of the lungs and our reliance on oxygen, and the physiology of respiration and gas exchange. He presents the history and course of lung transplantation, and of several pulmonary diseases including neonatal respiratory distress syndrome, asthma, tuberculosis, cystic fibrosis, and disorders caused by smoking, emphasizing that we all share our air. Moving chapters show how the actions of the few--smoking, polluting, refusing to wear masks during COVID-19--affect the many. He also discusses the importance of the breath in mindfulness and meditation, and in the production of speech. Throughout, Stephen emphasizes the role of science in improving humans' respiratory health. VERDICT Readers of Siddhartha Mukherjee and Atul Gawande will appreciate Stephen's writing. Blending science writing and medical reporting, this is a detailed, yet accessible account that will engage anyone concerned with their respiratory health.--Rachel Owens, Daytona State Coll. Lib., FL

(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Review by Kirkus Book Review

Brains and hearts preoccupy science writers, so this rare exploration of lungs fills a need. Pulmonologist Stephen cannot conceal his enthusiasm for his favorite organ as he mixes evolution, medical history, autobiography, and vivid stories of patients with a skillful account of how lungs operate and how we might take better care of them. Latecomers on the evolutionary scene, lungs arrived well after hearts and brains, when fish began leaving the ocean about 400 million years ago. They have a dual purpose: "bringing oxygen in while keeping everything else out. The latter objective is almost impossible…since we take more than fifteen thousand breaths a day." Along with life-giving oxygen, we inhale waste from factories, vehicles, heating systems, stoves, farms, and construction sites; we also sometimes add toxins that make us feel good. Heart disease and cancer have been declining for decades in the U.S. "In 2008," writes the author, "respiratory diseases in the United States for the first time replaced stroke as the third-deadliest disease." Stephen's expert review of his field's diseases reveals that lung cancer remains by far the deadliest malignancy. Almost universal in the 19th century and nearly conquered in the 20th, tuberculosis is on the rise and resistant to most antibiotics. Allergies and asthma make up an ongoing epidemic while lung transplants, miraculous when they succeed, are still a work in progress. "The greatest medical story never told" may be that of cystic fibrosis: Before World War II, it was fatal in infancy, but a cure is on the horizon. CF, he writes, "brings together the three main themes of this book--the central importance of the lungs, the courage of patients afflicted by a devastating illness, and the importance of hard work, intelligent observation, and collaboration in the advancement of medical science." Stephen manages to include Covid-19 but mostly as a lesson in how it spreads; masks help. Regarding yoga, mindfulness, and breathing exercises, the author delivers unimpressive studies but inspiring anecdotes. Valuable popular science. Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.