Several times I’ve heard Stanford physician Abraham Verghese, MD, champion of hands-on medicine and bestselling author, answer the question: Which does he considers himself first – a doctor or an author?
Always, I’ve heard him give the same answer. He is a physician first. For him, medicine is “a ministry with a calling.” The meaning to his life is in his ministry to the patient; how best to fulfill that ministry is his life’s journey. This he tells the entering first-year medical students during orientation, reminding them to always hold onto to the desire that drew them to medicine in the first place. The desire to help people.
But obviously, it’s not that simple. For Verghese, the author of nonfiction and fiction books and numerous articles in both the general and academic press, the two passions are intertwined and feed into each other. For him, writing is a path of discovery to become a better physician.
Now, Verghese’s work of combining the two fields has again been honored, this time with Verghese being named today the recipient of the $250,000 Heinz Award for Arts and Humanities. In a news story I quote Teresa Heinz, chairperson of the Heinz Family Foundation, which administers the annual Heinz Awards in five categories, on the choice:
Dr. Verghese’s widely acclaimed writings touch the heart and inform the soul, giving people of all walks of life a true understanding of what it is to heal the whole person – not just physically, but emotionally.
Verghese, who will be the commencement speaker for the Stanford medical school graduation in June, said he was excited about the award, which he considers “a lovely validation of work that is in that realm of being on the edge of science yet very much about the art.”
He also received another recent honor. His only novel (he’s currently working on his second), Cutting for Stone, has made the list of Amazon.com’s “100 Books to Read in a Lifetime.” It’s an accomplishment, he told me in an e-mail, that he’s indeed proud of. What writer wouldn’t be honored to have their book listed alongside the likes of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises and W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage?
Hearing of these two honors – along with recently having reread Verghese’s second memoir The Tennis Partner – reminded me of how close the author’s love for both art and medicine are wedded. And it reminded me yet again that for Verghese both art and science – which includes the entire medical establishment – ultimately exist as tools to help heal patients.
Previously: Abraham Verghese’s Cutting for Stone: Two years as a New York Times best seller, How Abraham Verghese writes, How a battle with Napoleon helped Abraham Verghese write his novel, Abraham Verghese at Work: A New York Times profile and Physicians turn to books to better understand patients, selves
Photo by Singer, 2012