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Abraham Verghese

  • Ethiopian author
  • Born 1955

Abraham Verghese (born 1955) is an American physician, author, Professor for the Theory and Practice of Medicine at Stanford University Medical School and Senior Associate Chair of the Department of Internal Medicine. He is also the author of three best-selling books, two memoirs and a novel. In 2011, he was elected to be a member of the Institute of Medicine. He received the National Humanities Medal from President Barack Obama in 2015. He was born in Ethiopia to parents from Kerala, India, who worked as teachers.


There are moments as a teacher when I'm conscious that I'm trotting out the same exact phrase my professor used with me years ago. It's an eerie feeling, as if my old mentor is not just in the room, but in my shoes, using me as his mouthpiece.




In America, we have always taken it as an article of faith that we 'battle' cancer; we attack it with knives, we poison it with chemotherapy or we blast it with radiation. If we are fortunate, we 'beat' the cancer. If not, we are posthumously praised for having 'succumbed after a long battle.'




I'm a great believer in geography being destiny.




I love to read poetry but I haven't written anything that I'm willing to show anybody.




My deceased patients have taught me over the years to believe in the glass half full, to make good use of the time we have, to be generous - that was their lesson for the Uber-mind, and it was free. 'Do that,' they said, 'and then perhaps death shall have no dominion.'




I'm the first to admit that the resolution of a hand feeling the belly doesn't compare with the resolution of a CAT scan scanning the belly, but only my hand can say that it hurts at this spot and not at this spot. Only my hand can say that.




My desire to be a physician had a lot to do with that sense of medicine as a ministry of healing, not just a science. And not even just a science and an art, but also a calling, also a ministry.




I think legislation needs to put an end to doctors profiting on businesses to which they can funnel patients - that is business, not medicine. If you try to call it medicine, then it is corruption. Without legislation, it will keep happening.




When I use the word 'healing,' by that I mean that every disease has a physical element that we're very good at handling, but there's always a sense of the violation. 'Why me?' 'Why is my leg broken on the ski trip and not anyone else's?' And I think that medicine has done a terrible job of addressing that spiritual violation.




The flip side of suicide is that it leaves a lingering question in the minds of the people who survived. It's like a cancer that's metastasized. The suicide is the cancer and the metastasis is all these people saying, Why? Why? Why?




Lets take away the incentives to do 'to' patients and instead create incentives to do 'for' patients, to be 'with' patients. We don't need to do comparative effectiveness trials to see if that works; we can just ask patients.




Certainly when I got to medical school, I had role models of the kind of physicians I wanted to be. I had an uncle who, looking back, was probably not the most-educated physician around, but he carried it off so well.




Though I am fascinated by knowledge, I am even more fascinated by wisdom.




The incredible cinematography makes 'A Walk to Beautiful' almost like a poem; there is a tenderness on display that seems to emanate from the camera. There is also great sensitivity to the women whose stories are being told - never did I have a sense of the subjects being exploited.




There's something universal about illness... Whether you like it, at some level all patients are saying, 'Daddy, Mommy, help me, tell me it's going to be alright.'




I've never bought this idea of taking a therapeutic distance. If I see a student or house staff cry, I take great faith in that. That's a great person; they're going to be a great doctor.




Rituals, anthropologists will tell us, are about transformation. The rituals we use for marriage, baptism or inaugurating a president are as elaborate as they are because we associate the ritual with a major life passage, the crossing of a critical threshold, or in other words, with transformation.




I'm a proud American - becoming a citizen in 1988 was one of the most profoundly moving occasions in my life; I'm a former Texan and a recent Californian.




By visiting patients in their home, by helping them come to terms with their illness, I could heal when I could not cure.




We have the sense that medical students come to medicine with a great capacity to understand the suffering of patients. And then by the end of the third year they completely lose that ability, partly because we teach them the specialized language of medicine.




My advice for writers is to get a good day job. It takes the pressure off writing if you have a job that pays the bills.




Patients know in a heartbeat if they're getting a clumsy exam.




I joke, but only half joke, that if you show up in an American hospital missing a finger, no one will believe you until they get a CAT scan, MRI and orthopedic consult.




For one who has an interest in the body as text, airports are treasure troves of information. It seems almost un-American to enjoy delays, and perhaps enjoy is not the best word, but certainly a delayed flight, if it does nothing else, allows one the opportunity to make prolonged observations about one's fellow travelers.




Modern society has evolved to the point where we counter the old-fashioned fatalism surrounding the word 'cancer' by embracing the idea of the Uber-mind - that our will possesses nearly supernatural powers.




My sense is that the wonderful technology that we have to visualize the inside of the body often leaves physicians feeling that the exam is a waste of time and so they may shortchange the ritual.




Literature is a beautiful way of keeping the imagination alive, of visiting worlds you would never have time to in your day-to-day life. It keeps you abreast of a wider spectrum of human activities.




I think we learn from medicine everywhere that it is, at its heart, a human endeavor, requiring good science but also a limitless curiosity and interest in your fellow human being, and that the physician-patient relationship is key; all else follows from it.




As a young physician in the mid-'80s, caring for people who had contracted H.I.V., I lost two of my patients to suicide at a time when the virus was doing very little harm to them. I have always thought of them as having been killed by a metaphor, by the burden of secrecy and shame associated with the disease.




Medicine, you see, is my first love; whether I write fiction or nonfiction, and even when it has nothing to do with medicine, it's still about medicine. After all, what is medicine but life plus? So I write about life.




When you have a natural genetic tan developed over centuries and many generations, the idea of soaking up rays by the pool has never made sense.




What we need in medical schools is not to teach empathy, as much as to preserve it - the process of learning huge volumes of information about disease, of learning a specialized language, can ironically make one lose sight of the patient one came to serve; empathy can be replaced by cynicism.




There is that lovely feeling of one reader telling another, 'You must read this.' I've always wanted to write a book like that, with the sense that you are contributing to the discourse in middle America, a discourse that begins at a book club in a living room, but then spreads. That is meaningful to me.




I write by stealing time. The hours in the day have never felt as if they belonged to me. The greatest number has belonged to my day job as a physician and professor of medicine - eight to 12 hours, and even more in the early days.




Medicine may be the lens through which I see the world, but since I think of medicine as 'life +', a place where life is exaggerated and seen at its most vital and poignant, I'll be writing about life more than I will be writing about medicine.




The bottom line: health care reform is about the patient, not about the physician.



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