Abraham Verghese: balancing passions

I loved “Cutting for Stone” at first sight, since page one, and since 2011. It kept me up many stormy nights, trapped me in its spiral of love, betrayal, despair, hope and forgiveness, and left me wondering for a while about what was fiction and what was real.

To satisfy my curiosity, I called upon my best friend Google and tracked down all the stories, talks and interviews that the web has to offer on Abraham Verghese. When I discovered the author was also a doctor at Stanford, I even tried to convince my brother, a graduate student at Stanford’s business school at the time, to arrange a meeting and fill me with insider’s information. Of course, this never happened. And after while, I forgot about it.

Knight Fellow Mariam Semaan with Dr. Abraham Verghese

Knight Fellow Mariam Semaan with Dr. Abraham Verghese at the fellowship offices.

Fast forward to now. I am sitting in the Knight Fellowship lounge, scrutinizing Verghese, our seminar guest of the week. Twenty journalists are firing questions at him. I already know most of the answers, so instead focus on the man himself, who seems – at first glance at least – perfectly at ease.

The perfect bedside manner

Relaxed outfit, simple demeanor. His first answers are polished and his words are carefully chosen — in perfect alignment with “A Doctor’s Touch,” his 2011 TED talk about bedside medicine that attracted more than a million viewers on YouTube. As if in the presence of a patient, he acknowledges the person asking a question, listens attentively, an eyebrow raised in concentration or a finger thrumming his prominent forehead. He nods slowly and comprehensively, then answers in a low and measured voice.

His stories about AIDS are heartbreaking and disturbing. “A powerful and poignant experience,” he said. “More than my patients, they were my friends, and I would mourn them.”

His experience as a specialist in infectious diseases has put him face to face with unbearable pain and misery, and he has been deeply changed by what he has experienced. “So now, for me, everyday above ground is a beautiful day,” he said. His smile is now bittersweet, but he keeps his initial composure, and I ask myself how he can be so peaceful.

A sensitive chord

Until we broach the topic of the delicate and intricate balance between being a fully committed doctor and a best-selling author. The subject is his most sensitive chord, one that makes his body and hands come to life. His long flying fingers curl to explain, open to confirm or shake to rebel. “Writing is an extension of me being a doctor. Writing is part of being a doctor. I write to understand what I am thinking, to reflect on what happened. ‘Cutting for Stone’ is all about the relationship between doctor and patient.”

Dr. Verghese is still reluctant to assume his status as a full-fledged writer. He is resisting, and perhaps clinging to the more secure and simple public image of a successful doctor. “I will give up writing in a heart beat. I will never give up medicine,” he adds to prove his point and show the extent of his attachment to a position he worked hard to attain.

I am very disappointed by this last statement, but I choose not to believe it. After all, his internal struggle is as old as time: how to bring oneself to accept another passion without betraying one’s first love? Mariam, the heroine of his next book, might be holding the answer.

NOTE: Abraham Verghese is a professor of medicine at Stanford’s School of Medicine. His first book, “My Own Country,” is the story of the AIDS patients he treated at a Tennessee hospital where he did his internship and residence. “Cutting for Stone” is the story of orphaned twin brothers who come of age as Ethiopia hovers on the brink of revolution. Verghese was a young medical student in 1974 when Emperor Haile Selassie was deposed.