Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Abraham Verghese, M.D.

Abraham Verghese has a short piece in the New York Times Magazine on his experience working with evacuees from Katrina who had been sent to San Antonio.

I've been a fan of Verghese's since I read his memoir My Own Country: A Doctor's Story some years ago. In the early 1980s, Verghese, an immigrant doctor from India (via east Africa), cared for AIDS patients in rural Tennessee -- when most people thought AIDS was some kind of gay cancer, and when no one in Tennessee thought the disease could be present in their state (it was, of course). In addition to caring for people with AIDS, Verghese took it upon himself to educate the public about the dangers of the disease, which included visiting gay bars (in the daytime) to hold seminars on the transmission of AIDS... It adds up to some pretty surreal scenes.

I have great respect for what doctors do (there are a number of doctors in my family), and I have particular respect for Verghese's sense of compassion, which is in evidence again in this piece.

Here is the the part of the current article that caught my eye:

He told me that for two nights after the floods, he had perched on a ledge so narrow that his legs dangled in the water. At one point, he said, he saw Air Force One fly over, and his hopes soared. "I waited, I waited," he said, but no help came. Finally a boat got him to a packed bridge. There, again, he waited. He shook his head in disbelief, smiling though. "Doc, they treat refugees in other countries better than they treated us."

"I'm so sorry," I said. "So sorry."

He looked at me long and hard, cocking his head as if weighing my words, which sounded so weak, so inadequate. He rose, holding out his hand, his posture firm as he shouldered his garbage bag. "Thank you, Doc. I needed to hear that. All they got to say is sorry. All they got to say is sorry."

I was still troubled by him when I left, even though he seemed the hardiest of all. This encounter between two Americans, between doctor and patient, had been carried to all the fullness that was permitted, and yet it was incomplete, as if he had, as a result of this experience, set in place some new barriers that neither I nor anyone else would ever cross.

The unstated irony in this encounter between an exhausted, frustrated patient and his doctor is the reference to "refugees in other countries." Verghese has to be aware that what the patient is thinking is "countries like the one you come from." But the patient had the discretion not to say it, and Verghese found the right words to respond.

At the end, Verghese describes the event as an "encounter between two Americans," which in some sense adds to the irony -- though there's no question that Verghese is absolutely sincere when he affirms his status as an American.

* * * *

Bit of trivia: Mira Nair directed a made-for-TV film version of My Own Country back in 1998, starring Naveen Andrews as the young Dr. Verghese.


Anonymous said...

While the movie was nothing to get to excited about, the book

12:55 PM  
brimful said...

Sorry about the messed up comment! Though I was not too impressed with the movie, the book is fantastic. Verghese is an amazing writer, and he published a great piece on the calling of his profession in NEJM. Let me know if you'd like it, I'd be happy to send it over to you by pdf.

I really appreciate the way Verghese is steadfast about his status as an American. We're a country filled with immigrants and descendants of immigrants, and focusing on the otherness related to that misses the commonality we share. I like that Verghese can focus on both sides equally.

Thanks for pointing out his recent piece, as I had not seen it!

12:59 PM  
Amardeep said...


Thanks for the pointer! It turns out that Lehigh subscribes to the NEJM, so I was able to find the article easily.

Perhaps it's not terribly surprising, given Verghese's literary bent, but I was intrigued by the fact that it was his experience reading novels that inspired Verghese to become a doctor.

One could just as easily imagine that his experience with literature might spurred him to try and become a professional writer!

Also interesting that both of the novelists he mentions are people who started out as practicing doctors, and quit to become writers. Verghese is sort of in that category, though he's managed to be somewhere in between: a medical professional who writes occasionally.

At any rate, the passage he cites from Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage is well worth repeating:

He found the work of absorbing interest. There was humanity there in the rough, the materials the artist worked on; and Philip felt a curious thrill when it occurred to him that he was in the position of the artist and the patients were like clay in his hands. . . . Philip found that he was less shy with these people than he had ever been with others; he felt not exactly sympathy, for sympathy suggests condescension; but he felt at home with them. He found that he was able to put them at their ease, and, when he had been given a case to find out what he could about it, it seemed to him that the patient delivered himself into his hands with a peculiar confidence. "Perhaps," he thought to himself, with a smile, "perhaps I'm cut out to be a doctor. It would be rather a lark if I'd hit upon the one thing I'm fit for."

To my jaded eye this is mot the most subtle of passages. But somehow I can see how a twelve-year old might respond quite differently to the same scene.

2:44 PM  
tilotamma said...

That movie was really bad - who made it?
Mira Nair -I expect much better from her.
My dad read this book from cover to cover when he was visiting me - that was a lot because I have never seen him read anything other than the newspaper.
I expect it was the medical stuff he liked. I thought my dad was really conservative but I guess I don't really know him!

4:29 PM  
Anonymous said...

Thanks for this post. I'm a fellow academic (or aspiring one - finishing my phd in comp lit at ut-austin [african lits]) and I absolutely love verghese's work. I hadn't seen the article in nytimes nor the one in the journal, but I will look for them. I am also intrigued that a movie was made but it sounds like it is not worth seeing.
Have you read his other book, The Tennis Partner? I'm curious what other people think. I loved it and cried while reading it; he has this way of communicating emotion without apparent mediation (nonetheless through words!) Anyway, I've enjoyed reading your blog now and then. - rebecca lorins

1:12 PM  

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