Dr. Abraham Verghese directs Stanford University’s internal medicine residency program and serves as senior associate chair for the theory & practice of medicine. Yet the infectious disease specialist and internist still finds time to write—most recently, the best-selling novel Cutting for Stone. (If your book group hasn’t tackled it yet, it undoubtedly will soon!) Previously, he penned the true stories My Own Country: A Doctor's Story of a Town and Its People in the Age of AIDS and Tennis Partner: A Doctor's Story of Friendship and Loss. Verghese talks about practicing medicine, teaching students—and squeezing in writing time. Excerpts:
How were you lured to the Farm?
I was very fortunate. The chair of medicine, Dr. [Ralph] Horwitz, was very interested in what I did and had tried to recruit me to Yale when he was there. When he moved here, he was very keen to have me join. It didn’t take much convincing!
And you’re a fan of Philip Pizzo, the dean of Stanford’s School of Medicine?
He’s a wonderful role model. He is an outstanding infectious disease and oncology expert. I used to read his papers long before I ever met him. He’s really lived in the trenches and taken care of patients.
Can you talk about your weekly bedside rounds? I hear you examine patients without knowing their diagnosis.
I don’t do it in order to be clever and make a diagnosis. I do it to go through this exercise of showing how much the body has to show us if we’re looking. I do it twice a week—Wednesday afternoon at Stanford and Friday afternoon at the Veterans Administration hospital.
Do you do it in front of medical students?
Not in front of, but with. It’s not some novel approach. It’s what they’ve been taught to do in their first two years. I’m giving them faith that it works. It’s a powerful way of connecting with patients.
What’s your schedule?
Technically, I have 40 percent protected time for writing, and Stanford was really visionary in creating that situation for me. Stanford has treated my writing as my research equivalent. Some months when I’m [the] attending physician on the ward, that 40 percent time vanishes, and other times when I don’t have that responsibility, I’m able to regain the writing time.
You spent time at the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa. Did you know novelist Ethan Canin, ’82 [author of America, America and Emperor of the Air], who got his medical degree at Harvard?
I know Ethan. I followed right after he left. The difference is that Ethan has chosen to write full time and has pretty much given up medicine. Medicine was always my first love. Writing was more a vehicle to express how much I enjoy medicine. I feel like my identity is completely wrapped up in medicine.
Cutting for Stone follows two Siamese twins who are separated. You weren’t a Siamese twin, and you didn’t operate on any, right?
I’m not sure where it all comes from. It’s not autobiographical in the sense I was not a Siamese twin and my parents weren’t doctors. But I was born in Africa. That’s the great joy about writing a novel. You invent, and you can be creative, but it still has to ring true. [Writer] Dorothy Allison said “fiction is the great lie that tells the truth about the world.”
Did you work on the screenplay for My Own Country?
I didn’t. I had a chance to give some input on it. A book is one kind of vehicle, and a screenplay is another one. Even though screenplays are adapted from a book, they really are a different creation.
Is anyone turning Cutting for Stone into a movie?
There’s a lot of talk, but talk is cheap. Until I sign on the line, I’m not sure.
You’ve got three sons. Can you tell us about them?
The older two just finished undergraduate degrees. I don’t know what they’ll wind up being.
And the younger one?
Will he go into medicine?
Would you like him to go to Stanford?
Certainly I would not have any problem with that!
What’s your next book?
I don’t really have a commitment yet to a book but hope to write another novel.
What makes Stanford special?
The willingness to break tradition, to think creatively, to take a chance on things.
I’m thinking of the very fact of hiring me! I’m a somewhat atypical hire in an institution well known for its research.
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