How the ‘Privilege of Physicianhood’ Inspires Best-Selling Author Abraham Verghese
July 11, 2023 – by Lindsay Paulsen, Media Logic
Stanford Medicine 25 founder Abraham Verghese, M.D., MACP, is not only a passionate physician but also a gifted writer. Over the years, he’s produced multiple masterpieces, and his newly released medical novel, The Covenant of Water, has landed at the top of the New York Times Best-Seller List and earned fame as an Oprah’s Book Club pick. Readers across the country, including Oprah herself, have praised Verghese’s work which sits at the rare intersection of literary genius and scientific brilliance.
According to Verghese, his identities as both a physician and a writer are deeply intertwined: “The writing comes out of the great privilege of physicianhood and being attentive to details and trying to gather them into one unifying package," he tells Oprah and the CBS Mornings cast.
Verghese embodies Stanford Medicine 25’s ideals of channeling humanity and empathy in patient interactions, and this interest in the human story is part of his magic as an author.
A closer look at his philosophy on writing reveals important lessons for physicians and medical learners!
About Abraham Verghese
Much of Verghese’s work was born out of personal experience. To better understand his writing, it’s helpful to first understand his background.
Verghese was born and raised in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where he also began his medical training. Later, when his home country experienced political turmoil, he departed for the United States. In the U.S., he worked as a nursing assistant before completing his medical education at Madras Medical College in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India.
He eventually returned to the U.S., completing his internal medicine residency in Johnson City, Tennessee, and then a fellowship at Boston University School of Medicine, where he worked at Boston City Hospital for two years. He then returned to Johnson City as an assistant professor of medicine. During this time, he witnessed the impacts of the AIDS epidemic, which would inspire his written work. As he became more interested in writing, Verghese took time away from medicine to earn an MFA at the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop. He later became a professor of medicine and chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Texas Tech Health Sciences Center in El Paso, Texas, and then the founding director of the Center for Medical Humanities and Ethics at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio.
Today, he is Professor and Linda R. Meier and Joan F. Lane Provostial Professor, and Vice Chair for the Theory and Practice of Medicine at the School of Medicine at Stanford University, where he also leads Stanford Medicine 25.
Along his journey as a physician, medical educator, and author, Verghese received numerous awards, including the 2014 Heinz Award for Arts and Humanities and the National Humanities Medal, presented by President Barack Obama in 2015.
Where Healing and the Medical Humanities Meet
Verghese’s personal experiences, including his time as a nursing assistant and a physician on the frontlines of the AIDS epidemic, shifted his perspective on the larger goals of medicine. Prior to his work with AIDS patients, he was focused on curative medicine. However, after witnessing several premature and tragic deaths, he learned the difference between healing and curing. “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,” he explains on his website.
This interest in healing, combined with a deep appreciation for patient relationships, led Verghese to dive deeper into the medical humanities. His first book, My Own Country: A Doctor’s Story (1994), offers a window into his life serving patients with AIDS. The book was named one of TIME’s Best Books of the Year and was adapted into a film produced by Showtime. He went on to produce The Tennis Partner: A Story of Friendship and Loss (1998), Cutting for Stone (2009) and, most recently, The Covenant of Water (2023).
What Good Writers and Good Physicians Have In Common
Since its release in May of this year, The Covenant of Water has received widespread critical acclaim and become a national best-seller. The book follows three generations of a family in Kerala, India, that has a unique curse: In each generation, some family members die by drowning.
In an article for Stanford Medicine’s Scope, Verghese tells writer Emily Moskal that the aim of the book is to explore life’s major themes, such as love and faith, through the conduit of medicine. As Moskal explains, much of Verghese’s teaching as a medical educator focuses on the human side of medicine. “This approach draws him to develop characters and understand the human condition, a key ingredient in good fiction writing,” Moskal writes.
The same lens that I have used for many years as a physician — looking at patients with a great deal of curiosity and empathy — is the same lens that I bring to writing. We physicians have some advantage as writers in that we're taught to observe and to bring separate facts together into a unifying diagnosis. Some of those elements take place in writing as well.
Verghese expands on this idea: “The same lens that I have used for many years as a physician — looking at patients with a great deal of curiosity and empathy — is the same lens that I bring to writing. We physicians have some advantage as writers in that we're taught to observe and to bring separate facts together into a unifying diagnosis. Some of those elements take place in writing as well.”
We encourage our fellow physicians and medical learners to explore Verghese’s books further! His books not only offer insights into medicine and patient care but also a fresh perspective on life in general! Learn more about The Covenant of Water and Verghese’s other published works on his website.