Abraham Verghese: vur geez with a hard 'g'
Born in 1955 as the second of three sons of Indian parents recruited by Emperor Haile Selassie to teach in Ethiopia, Abraham Verghese grew up near Addis Ababa and began his medical training there. When the emperor was deposed, Verghese briefly joined his parents who had moved to the United States because of the war. He worked in a hospital before returning to complete his medical education at Madras Medical College.
After graduation, he left India for a residency in the United States, and like many other foreign medical graduates, he found only the less popular hospitals and communities open to him, an experience he described in one of his early New Yorker articles, The Cowpath to America.
From Johnson City, Tennessee, where he was a internal medicine resident from 1980 to 1983, he moved to the Northeast for a fellowship at Boston University School of Medicine, working at Boston City Hospital for two years. It was here that he first saw the early signs of the HIV epidemic and later, when he returned to Johnson City as an assistant professor of medicine, he saw the second epidemic, rural AIDS, and his life took the turn for which he is so well known he cared for a seemingly unending line of young AIDS patients in an era when little could be done other than help them through their premature and painful deaths. Long before retrovirals, this was often the most a physician could do and it taught Verghese the subtle difference between healing and curing.
Verghese's early years as an orderly, his caring for terminal AIDS patients, the insights he gained from the deep relationships he formed and the suffering he witnessed were intensely transformative. They were the cumulative experience around which his first book, My Own Country : A Doctor's Story, is centered.
Such was his growing interest in writing in the late 1980s that he decided to take some time away from medicine to study at the Iowa Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa, where he earned a Master of Fine Arts degree in 1991. Since then, his writing has appeared in The New Yorker, Texas Monthly, Atlantic, The New York Times, The New York Times Magazine, Granta, Forbes.com, and The Wall Street Journal, among others.
After leaving Iowa, he became professor of medicine and chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Texas Tech Health Sciences Center in El Paso, Texas, where he lived for the next 11 years. In addition to writing his first book, which was one of five chosen as Best Book of the Year by Time magazine and later made into a Showtime movie directed by Mira Nair, he also wrote a second best-selling book, The Tennis Partner : A Story of Friendship and Loss, about his friend and tennis partner's struggle with addiction. This was named a New York Times' Notable Book.
He left El Paso in 2002 and, as founding director of the Center for Medical Humanities & Ethics at the University of Texas Health Science Center San Antonio, he brought the deep-seated empathy for patient suffering that had been honed by his previous experiences to his new role in the medical humanities. He gave the new Center a guiding mission, "Imagining the Patient's Experience," to emphasize the importance of interactive patient care. In San Antonio, he also became more focused on bedside medicine, inviting small groups of medical students to accompany him on bedside rounds. Rounds gave him a way to share the value he placed on the physical examination in diagnosing patients and demonstrating attentiveness to patients and their families, a vital key in the healing process.
Dr. Verghese's deep interest in bedside medicine and his reputation as a clinician, teacher and writer led to his recruitment to Stanford University School of Medicine in 2007 as a tenured professor and senior associate chair for the Theory and Practice of Medicine.
Today, in his writing and his work, he continues to emphasize the importance of bedside medicine and physical examination in an era of advanced medical technology. He contends that the patient in the bed often has less attention than the patient data in the computer. His December 2008 article in the New England Journal of Medicine, Culture Shock: Patient as Icon, Icon as Patient, clearly lays out his viewpoint.
In his novel, Cutting for Stone, he also addresses the issue.
Today, as a popular invited speaker, he has forums to expound on his views on patient care. He talks nationally and internationally on the subject.
This biography was last updated on 01/15/2014.
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An interview with Abraham Verghese about his life and writing and in particular about his 2009 novel Cutting for Stone
Your previous two books are non-fiction, but you've said that you have always thought of
yourself as a fiction writer first. How so?
Fiction is truly my first love. To paraphrase Dorothy Allison, fiction is the great lie that tells the truth about how the world really lives. It is why in teaching medical students I use Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilych to teach about end-of-life, and Bastard out of Carolina to help students really understand child abuse. A textbook rarely gives them the kind of truth or understanding achieved in the best fiction.
One of my first published short stories was "Lilacs," in which the protagonist has HIV. Its appearance in The New Yorker in 1991 was a part of what led to my contract to write My Own Country, a memoir of my years of caring for persons with HIV in rural Tennessee. While writing that book I found myself living through an intense personal story of friendship and loss that led to a second non-fiction book, The Tennis Partner. But after that, I passed up on an offer to write a third non-fiction ...
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