President Obama will recognize a leading Indian-American writer and physician with the National Humanities Medal Sept. 22.
Abraham Verghese, 61, whose books based on experiences of real health crises woven into moving experiences, have drawn critical acclaim worldwide and several awards, will be honored in a White House ceremony, along with numerous others.
Born in Ethiopia in 1955, Verghese had to cut short his medical training in Addis Ababa when Emperor Haile Selassie was deposed and civil unrest broke out. He joined his parents in the U.S. and worked as an orderly in a hospital before going to India to study medicine at Madras Medical College. He came back to the U.S. to do his residency at East Tennessee State University, later returning to the South to witness the devastation caused by the AIDS epidemic. His first book, My Own Country: A Doctor’s Story, was based on those experiences of seeing young men die with little but emotional support that he could give them for the then little-known disease. His other book, Cutting for Stone, was set in Ethiopia from where it moved to America. “I wanted the reader to see how entering medicine was a passionate quest, a romantic pursuit, a spiritual calling, a privileged yet hazardous undertaking,” He is quoted saying about that book. “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 all manner of tests, that side of medicine gets lost.”
Currently the Linda R. Meier and Joan F. Lane Provostial Professor at Stanford University, Verghese also earned a Master of Fine Arts degree at the University of Iowa, focused on fiction writing.
His citation, which will be read aloud at the Sept. 22 ceremony as the President places the medal on him, reads as follows – “Abraham Verghese for reminding us that the patient is the center of the medical enterprise. His range of proficiency embodies the diversity of the humanities; from his efforts to emphasize empathy in medicine, to his imaginative renderings of the human drama.”
Verghese who is in high demand as a TED Speaker, and has written extensively in journals and news magazines, emphasizes the importance of the patient-doctor relationship in an environment of fast-developing medical technology.
“I still find the best way to understand a hospitalized patient is not by staring at a computer screen, but going to see that patient. For it is at the bedside that I can figure out what’s important to the patient and how the data you have accumulated makes sense,” he says on his website. He is also the vice chair for the Theory and Practice of Medicine at the School of Medicine at Stanford.