Abraham Verghese, MD, MACP, is Professor for the Theory and Practice of Medicine at the Stanford University School of Medicine and Senior Associate Chair of the Department of Internal Medicine.
Born in 1955 of Indian parents who were teachers in Ethiopia, he grew up near Addis Ababa and began his medical training there. When Emperor Haile Selassie was deposed, he briefly joined his parents who had moved to the United States, and worked as an orderly before returning to complete his medical education at Madras Medical College. He later returned to the U.S. for his residency as one of many foreign medical graduates. Like many other foreign medical graduates, he found only the less popular hospitals and communities open to him, an experience he described in one of his early New Yorker articles, The Cowpath to America.
From Johnson City, Tennessee, where he was a resident from 1980 to 1983, he did his fellowship at Boston University School of Medicine, working at Boston City Hospital for two years. It was here that he first saw the early signs of the HIV epidemic and later, when he returned to Johnson City as an assistant professor of medicine, he saw the second epidemic, rural AIDS, and his life took the turn for which he is most well known -- his caring for numerous AIDS patients in an era when little could be done and helping them through their early and painful deaths was often the most a physician could do.
Abraham Verghese's earlier work as an orderly, his caring for terminal AIDS patients, the insights he gained from the deep relationships he formed and the suffering he witnessed were intensely transformative; they became the basis for his first book, My Own Country : A Doctor's Story, written later during his years in El Paso, Texas. Such was his interest in writing that he decided to take some time away from medicine to study at the Iowa Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa, where he earned a Master of Fine Arts degree in 1991. Since then, his writing has appeared in The New Yorker, Texas Monthly, Atlantic, The New York Times, The New York Times Magazine, Granta, Forbes.com, and The Wall Street Journal, among others.
After leaving Iowa, he became professor of medicine and chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Texas Tech Health Sciences Center in El Paso, Texas, where he lived for the next 11 years. In addition to writing his first book, which was one of five chosen as Best Book of the Year by Time magazine and later made into a Mira Nair movie, he also wrote a second best-selling book, The Tennis Partner : A Story of Friendship and Loss, about his friend and tennis partner's struggle with addiction. This was a New York Times' Notable Book.
Emphasis on the Physician-Patient Relationship
As founding director of the Center for Medical Humanities & Ethics at the University of Texas Health Science Center San Antonio, he brought the deep-seated empathy for patient suffering that had been honed by his previous experiences to his new role in the medical humanities.
He gave the new Center a guiding mission, "Imagining the Patient's Experience," to emphasize the importance of truly caring for the patient. He saw empathy as a way to preserve the innate empathy and sensitivity that brings students to medical school but which the rigors of their training frequently suppress. In San Antonio, also, he became more focused on bedside medicine, inviting small groups of medical students to accompany him on bedside rounds. Rounds gave him a way to share the value he places on the physical examination in diagnosing patients and demonstrating attentiveness to patients and their families, a vital key in the healing process.
Dr. Verghese's deep interest in bedside medicine and his reputation as a clinician, teacher and writer led to his being recruited to Stanford University in 2007 as a tenured professor.
Today, in his writing and his work, he continues to emphasize the importance of bedside medicine and physical examination in a time in medicine when the use of advanced technology frequently results in the patient in the bed having less attention than the patient data in the computer. His December 2008 article in the New England Journal of Medicine, Culture Shock: Patient as Icon, Icon as Patient, clearly lays out his viewpoint. In his book, Cutting for Stone, he also addresses the issue.
"I wanted the reader to see how entering medicine was a passionate quest, a romantic pursuit, a spiritual calling, a privileged yet hazardous undertaking. It's a view of medicine I don't think too many young people see in the West because, frankly, in the sterile hallways of modern medical-industrial complexes, where physicians and nurses are hunkered down behind computer monitors, and patients are whisked off here and there for this and that test, that side of medicine gets lost."
More about Abraham Verghese
Physician Returns: Stanford Medical Center Report
Q/A on Bedside Medicine
Q/A on Humanities and Medical Education