(Jun 11, 2023) “One of the best books I’ve read in my entire life. It’s epic. It’s transportive,” remarked Oprah Winfrey as she endorsed the new book of Dr. Abraham Verghese at OprahDaily.com. “It was unputdownable!” she added. Dr. Verghese’s latest book, The Covenant of Water published by the Grove Press has been heaped with good reviews. While The New York Times called it ‘grand, spectacular, sweeping and utterly absorbing,’ NPR has put it in the same league as the works of literary greats like RK Narayan, Raja Rao, K Nagarajan, and OV Vijayan.
The Covenant of Water is the much-anticipated novel of Dr. Abraham Verghese, who is also the author of the bestseller Cutting for Stone, which has sold over 1.5 million copies in the US alone and has been on the New York Times bestseller list for more than two years.
“I’m deeply honoured to be the 2023 recipient of the Writer in the World Prize from the Sun Valley Writers’ Conference!” the Global Indian recently tweeted. His new book is in the New York Times bestseller list too like his previous ones.
What is most intriguing about the author is that he is not only at the top of his craft in the literary world, but also in the domain of academics and medicine. He works as the Professor, Linda R. Meier, and Joan F. Lane Provostial Professor, as well as vice chair for the Theory and Practice of Medicine at the Stanford University School of Medicine.
The best-selling author is a highly regarded physician who prioritises the human aspect of medicine – something which is highly significant in a time when technology often dominates the field. His contribution to the field of medicine has been acknowledged by awards like the prestigious Heinz Award (2014), and the National Humanities Medal presented to him by former US President Barack Obama in 2015.
Journey of life
Dr. Abraham Verghese was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in 1955 as the second of three sons to Indian immigrants who were recruited by Emperor Haile Selassie to teach in the country. Dr. Verghese pursued his early medical education in Ethiopia.
After Ethiopia’s emperor was deposed his parents moved to the United States. Verghese temporarily joined his parents there working as an orderly or nursing assistant, gaining experience in various hospitals and nursing homes before completing his medical studies at Madras Medical College in India. The experiences during the civil unrest in Ethiopia and his role as a hospital orderly in his formative years left a profound impact on the medic’s personal life and professional endeavours.
He relocated to the United States for medical residency after graduating from Madras Medical College. Opportunities for foreign medical graduates were limited in the US and Dr. Verghese found himself working in less popular hospitals and communities. In a 1997 article for The New Yorker titled The Cowpath to America, he shared his experiences of those times.
Facilitating healing and getting impacted
Following his residency in Johnson City, Tennessee in the 1980s, Dr. Verghese pursued a fellowship at Boston University School of Medicine, working at Boston City Hospital for two years. It was during this time that he first encountered the early signs of the HIV epidemic. Returning to Johnson City as an assistant professor of medicine, he found himself caring for a significant number of patients with HIV.
During those times treatment options for AIDS were limited, and he witnessed the devastating impact of the disease and the premature deaths it caused. These experiences deeply affected him and led him to reflect on the distinction between healing and curing. He got focussed on the role of a physician in facilitating healing, even in the absence of a cure.
One can be healed even when there is no cure, by which I mean a coming to terms with the illness, finding some level of peace and acceptance in such a terrible setting; this is something a physician can, if they are lucky, help facilitate.
A deep urge to pen down his experiences as an orderly, his compassionate care for terminal AIDS patients, and his profound relationships with the patients and their families had a transformative impact on Dr. Verghese.
To ooze out his feelings he authored a seminal scientific paper around his experiences, but he felt that the language of science failed to adequately capture the human side of patients, their families, and the physicians treating them.
Stepping into the literary world
Dr. Verghese’s urge for creative writing became so profound that he took time off from medicine to join Iowa Writers Workshop where he obtained an MFA degree in 1991. It was from then that his writings started featuring in esteemed publications like New Yorker, Texas Monthly, The New York Times, Forbes, and The Wall Street Journal, among others.
His cumulative experiences and emotions while witnessing the journeys of his patients served as the foundation for his first book – My Own Country: A Doctor’s Story which got published in 1994. It got chosen as one of the Best Books of the Year by TIME and later got adapted into the film My Own Country by Mira Nair. His second best-selling book, The Tennis Partner: A Story of Friendship and Loss (1997), revolved around his friend and tennis partner’s struggle with addiction. It was on the list of New York Times Notable Books of the Year.
Though Dr. Verghese became an acclaimed writer, he did not lose focus of his duties as a doctor. Following his time at Iowa, Dr. Verghese assumed the role of professor of medicine and chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Texas Tech Health Sciences Center in El Paso.
In 2002, Dr. Verghese left El Paso and assumed the role of the founding director of the Center for Medical Humanities and Ethics at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio. He served there for 11 years. Drawing from his previous experiences, he interspersed a deep empathy in his work in the field of medical humanities.
He placed a strong emphasis on interactive patient care and established the guiding mission of the Center as ‘Imagining the Patient’s Experience’.
Empathy is crucial in preserving the inherent compassion and sensitivity that draw students to medical school but often become suppressed during their rigorous training.
Due to his eminent reputation as a clinician, teacher, and writer, Dr. Verghese was recruited to Stanford University School of Medicine in 2007 and has been associated with the institution since then.
Dr. Abraham Verghese continues to advocate for the importance of bedside medicine and physical examinations in an era dominated by advanced medical technology. He believes that patients often receive less attention than their data in the computer systems of modern healthcare facilities. In his article titled Culture Shock: Patient as Icon, Icon as Patient published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2008, Dr. Verghese succinctly expressed his perspective on the matter.
While being a compassionate doctor he is on a quest of depicting medicine in a more humane light through his writings.
While talking about his book Cutting for Stone, he mentioned, “I wanted the reader to see how entering medicine was a passionate quest, a romantic pursuit, a spiritual calling, a privileged yet hazardous undertaking.”
In a recent interview after his new novel got launched, he remarked, “We, as physicians, are acutely aware of mortality. We’re surrounded by it. We can’t let our empathy get so overwhelming that we stop making good decisions. So, you practice a sort of distancing. But in the dark of the night, in your own home, often, that all just falls away, and you’re deeply affected by the thing you just saw. And that’s where I think the writing helps to make sense of that.”
As a popular invited speaker, Dr. Verghese has numerous platforms beyond his writing to share his views on patient care. He frequently delivers talks and reading sessions of his books.
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