Abraham Verghese, MD, MACP, is Professor and Linda R. Meier and Joan F. Lane Provostial Professor, and Vice Chair for the Theory and Practice of Medicine at the School of Medicine at Stanford University. He is also a critically acclaimed, best-selling author and a physician with an international reputation for his focus on healing in an era where technology often overwhelms the human side of medicine. In February 2014, he received a Heinz Award from Teresa Heinz and the Heinz Family Foundation. The awards given annually in the areas of Arts and Humanities; Environment; Human Condition; Public Policy; and Technology, the Economy and Employment, celebrate the enduring spirit of hope and the power of innovation.
Born in Addis Ababa in 1955, the second of three sons of Indian parents recruited by Emperor Haile Selassie to teach in Ethiopia, he grew up near the capital 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, working as an orderly in a hospital before completing his medical education in India at Madras Medical College. Both the civil unrest and this time as a hospital orderly were to leave a significant mark on his life and work.
After graduation, he left India for a medical 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 now so well known – caring 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 Abraham Verghese the subtle difference between healing and curing.
My Own Country
Abraham 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. These were the cumulative experiences 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 frequent tennis partner’s losing struggle with addiction. This was named a New York Times’ Notable Book.
Emphasis on the Physician-Patient Relationship
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. He saw empathy as a way to preserve the innate caring and sensitivity that brings students to medical school, but which the rigors of their training frequently suppress. In San Antonio, also, he 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 one-on-one 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. He has since been named the Linda R. Meier and Joan F. Lane Provostial Professor Vice Chair for the Theory and Practice of Medicine at the Stanford School of Medicine.
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 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.
Cutting for Stone
“I wanted the reader to see how entering medicine was a passionate quest, a romantic pursuit, a spiritual calling, a privileged yet hazardous undertaking,” he said. “It’s a view of medicine I don’t think too many young people see in the West because, frankly, in the sterile hallways of modern medical-industrial complexes, where physicians and nurses are hunkered down behind computer monitors, and patients are whisked off here and there for all manner of tests, that side of medicine gets lost.”
Today, as a popular invited speaker, he has more forums than his writing to expound on his views on patient care. He talks nationally and internationally on the subject, in addition to talks and readings from his books. He has also led the effort at the Stanford School of Medicine to establish the Stanford 25, where residents and students are taught techniques and skills to recognize the basic phenotypic expressions of disease that manifest as abnormal physical signs.