Physician Abraham Verghese Combines His Love of Books and Medicine

By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 16, 2009

NASHVILLE Nearly two decades ago, when Abraham Verghese put his career as a physician on hold to try his hand at fiction, he knew he wanted to write an "epic medical novel."

Beyond that, things were a little vague.

Verghese, an internist specializing in infectious disease who's now on the faculty at Stanford's medical school, spent the late 1980s in Johnson City, Tenn., ministering to the first wave of AIDS patients to surface there. Needing a break from his immersion in the then-untreatable disease, he quit his job, cashed in his 401(k) plan and headed for the Iowa Writers' Workshop.

He arrived in Iowa City in 1990 not knowing what to expect. He carried his briefcase to his first workshop meeting, then sat quietly as his work-boots-and-jeans-wearing peers tossed around the names of writers he'd never heard of or didn't know well. Barth! Babel! Cheever! Verghese wrote down the names and headed for the library, where he would check out armfuls of books "just to find out what the hell they were talking about."

What he did know was that his time in Iowa was something he couldn't afford to waste.

"I was taking care of people my age who were dying," he says. "The constant feeling, hearing from them, was that life is transient and can end very quickly, so don't postpone your dreams."

Nineteen years later, Verghese's dream of writing has carried him to a packed auditorium at Vanderbilt University's medical school. Maybe 300 white-coated doctors and students -- some carrying worn copies of "My Own Country," the nonfiction book about his Johnson City experience that he published in 1994 -- have assembled on a frigid January morning for grand rounds. These weekly sessions, in which medical eminences address urgent professional questions, are normally devoted to "arguing about some disease," as department of medicine Chairman Eric Neilson puts it.

Not today.

Verghese's topic is "The Pen and the Stethoscope: What Writing Can Teach Us About Medicine." Over the next hour, he merges insights from his twinned careers.

He says harried doctors must understand that to every patient, illness is a story. He turns the death of the great writer-physician Anton Chekhov into a parable of humane medical care. He shows how the concept of the epiphany applies to both fiction and medical diagnosis.

He doesn't mention "Cutting for Stone," the hefty, old-fashioned novel he's finally written. (The Washington Post's reviewer called it "masterful"; Verghese will read from it tonight at Politics and Prose.) But in the question period, someone asks for "a sentence-or-two teaser."

"It's very much a medical epic," Verghese says. "It begins with a nun, Sister Mary Joseph Praise, giving birth to twins in an operating room in a mission hospital in Africa. And the father is there, a British surgeon, but he does not know exactly how he could be the father."

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