Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Medical Fiction That Rings True

A guest-post from Andrea Fereshteh, senior writer in Duke's office of news and communications:

Re-reading physician-turned author Abraham Verghese’s first book My Own Country last month, I was struck by his raw, revealing look at treating AIDS in East Tennessee during the late 1980s.

My father went to work with Verghese when I was just seven years old and though I identified them as doctors by their white coats and the stethoscopes draped around their necks, I now appreciate Verghese’s graphic illustration of the daily challenges they faced confronting the space between life and death, witnessing humanity laid bare.

Verghese continues to usher readers into the intimate world between patient and physician with his debut novel Cutting for Stone.

He read excerpts from the book and spoke to an audience of physicians, medical students and local fans at the Searle Center last night. (Read a New York Times review and the first chapter of the book)

The story follows twin brothers born of a secret union between an Indian nun and a British surgeon named Thomas Stone in a hospital in Africa. The circumstances are familiar ground for Verghese; he was born in Ethiopia to Indian parents. The twins in the story later find themselves drawn to the medical profession, as did Verghese.
He read aloud two excerpts from the book, including a humorous exchange between two doctors -- one teaching the other how to do a vasectomy -- that had the audience laughing out loud.

He then spoke candidly to the audience about his journey from medicine into writing, and how he continues to straddle both worlds today as professor of internal medicine at Stanford University

Marking a departure from the two non-fiction books he has written in the past, fiction writing, Verghese commented, was a challenge.

“People have an inherent interest in non-fiction because it actually happened,” he said. “For fiction writing, you have to work harder to make the reader suspend disbelief from the moment they begin reading through the last page of the book.”

Describing how he felt drawn to medicine after reading Of Human Bondage by William Somerset Maugham, Verghese says he writes in order to “find out what I’m thinking.”

Writing this book, he said, reminded him that the most important function of a physician is not just scientific or technical, but Samaritan.

“The act of sitting down to write is important,” he said, noting that he keeps a journal and finds time to write whenever he can. “Writing this novel reaffirmed my faith and love for medicine. It is more than a profession, it’s a calling.”

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