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.”

Monday, February 16, 2009

Conference tackles environmental issues

“Global warming was quaint,” according to one speaker at Friday’s “World in Conflict” conference, held at Duke’s French Family Science Center. He meant that global warming was only the start of the various environmental problems that will soon plague our planet.

These problems were the focus of the conference, which dealt with the issues of water, energy, and biodiversity specifically. Each was the subject of separate expert lectures and discussion periods.

The water panel included Dr. Avner Vengosh (Nicholas School), Dr. Martin Doyle (UNC-CH), and Dr. Chris Knightes (EPA), moderated by Dr. Peter G. McCornick (Nicholas School). Each gave a 20-minute talk about subjects ranging from American river management and mercury pollution to water supply disputes in the Gaza strip.

The biodiversity panel included Dr. Wallace J. Nichols (Ocean Revolution), Felipe Carazo (the Nature Conservancy), and Michael Totten (Conservation International) [see his presentation on SlideShare], moderated by Dr. Randall A. Kramer (Nicholas School). These three speakers focused on the current state of the natural world, the success of current conservation efforts, and the way forward.

The energy panel included Bill Powers (Border Power Plant Working Group), Sheri Willoughby (World Wildlife Fund), and Evie Zambetakis (the Brookings Institution), moderated by Dr. Dalia Patino-Echeverri (Nicholas School). This panel discussed local and renewable energy sources, both their benefits and deficits.

The conference also featured keynote speaker Carl Safina, founder of the Blue Ocean Institute and author of several books. Following a short introduction by Dr. Emily Klein, Safina lectured about the immense impact humans have had on the world’s oceans.

“Every place people have gone, they have changed the ocean.”

The problem, Safina says, is that people “don’t think of fish as wildlife.” When the oceans span the majority of our planet, it doesn’t seem like anything could harm them. But the vast interconnectedness of the world’s oceans make them especially vulnerable to change. Today, many ocean organisms are suffering in light of overharvesting, ocean acidification, habitat damage, and invasive species.

Safina grew up by the ocean, and says he witnessed the decline of marine animal populations firsthand. This loss is what drove him to devote his life to ocean conservation.

“It’s okay to use the ocean-- it’s not okay to use it up,” Safina said. “This is not the relationship with the world that we want, but it is the relationship that we have.”

In spite of humanity’s devastating impact, Safina emphasized that the ocean can recover-- if the right actions are taken. This spirit was emblematic of the entire conference.

“Don’t ask yourself whether you should be optimistic or pessimistic. Just be inspired, and ask yourself how can we all use our individual talents to make things better?”