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Abraham Verghese discusses stealing metaphors and the language of medicine at TEDMED

Abraham Verghese TEMED

Few of us pay close attention to metaphors used in the language of medicine. Instead, our focus is typically on words relating to symptoms, test results and diagnoses. But as Stanford physician and author Abraham Verghese, MD, explained last week at TEDMED in San Francisco (which was co-sponsored by Stanford Medicine), metaphors, particularly as they relate to medicine, are significant because "they explain our past... [and] share our present and, perhaps most importantly, the metaphors we pick predicate our future."

Verghese took conference attendees through a "grand romp through medicine and metaphor" during a session titled "Stealing Smart," which featured seven speakers and their stories on how stealing something from another field, such as the principles of video game design, could improve medicine. As a child with "no head for math," Verghese was drawn to the written word and developed a love for metaphors. His physical and metaphorical journey into medicine originated with his childhood reading and, as he sheepishly admitted, his reading list "had a certain prurient bias." In fact, he selected the novel that set the course of his life, Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham, because the title "had great promise." Despite it's lack of salacious content, the book made a lasting impression on Verghese.

He recalled reading about how the protagonist, a boy named Philip who was born with a clubfoot, overcame great adversity to become a physician. The character was intrigued at the variety of patients he meets in the wards of the hospital and marvels at their willingness to open up about their personal lives at a time of distress. In describing the doctor-patient relationship, the author writes, "There was humanity there in the rough." Those words spoke deeply to young Verghese and "implied to [him] that not everyone could be a brilliant engineer, could be a brilliant artist, but anybody with a curiosity about the human condition, with a willingness to work hard, with an empathy for their fellow human being could become a great physician." He added, "I came into [the profession] with the sense that medicine was a romantic passionate pursuit. I haven’t stopped feeling that way, and for someone who loved words anatomy was such fun."

Verghese reveled in the abundance of medical metaphors throughout his training. The prevailing metaphor in anatomy was that of a house, while the overarching metaphor of physiology was that of a machine. When it came to describing symptoms, there was no shortage of metaphors: the "strawberry tongue" associated with scarlet fever, the "peau d'orange" appearance of the breast in breast cancer and the "apple-core” lesion of colon cancer. "That’s just the fruits - don’t get me started on the non-vegetarian stuff," he joked.

But all of the metaphors noted in his talk are 60-100 years old, and when it came to naming one from more recent times Verghese was at a loss. He said:

In my lifetime, and I suspect in yours, we've seen so many new diseases - AIDS, SARS, Ebola, Lyme... We have so many new ways at looking inside the body and scanning the body, such as PET and MRI, and yet, strangely, not one new metaphor, that I can think of... It’s a strange paucity because we are so imaginative. The amount of science that has been done in the last 10 years eclipses anything that was done in the last 100 years. We’re not lacking in imagination, but we may be lacking in metaphorical imagination.

This dearth of metaphor has two consequences, he said. The first is that Congress isn't funding biomedical research to the level that is necessary to advance new discoveries and treatments. The second is that patients are "not as enamored with our medicine and our science as we might think they should be," he said. Verghese implored the audience to "create metaphors befitting our wonderful era discovery." He encouraged those in the crowd and watching the livestream online to accept this challenge, saying, "I want to invite you to name things after yourself. Go ahead! Why not?"

As he closed the talk, Verghese shared the metaphor that has guided his life by saying:

It’s the metaphor of a calling. It’s the metaphor of a ministry of healing. It’s the metaphor of the great privilege we’re allowed, all of us with anything to do with health care, the privilege of being allowed into people's lives when they are at their most vulnerable. It’s very much about the art of medicine. And we have to bring all the great science, all the big data, all the wonderful things that we’re going to be talking about [at this conference] to bear one human being to another... We have to love the sick. Each and everyone of them as if they were our own. And you know what? They are our own, because we are all humanity there in the rough.

Previously: Abraham Verghese urges Stanford grads to always remember the heritage and rituals of medicine, Inside Abraham Verghese’s bag, a collection of stories and Stanford’s Abraham Verghese honored as both author and healer

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