~ Abraham Verghese
I wrote about Abraham Verghese in this post over the summer, where I couldn’t wait to read his novel Cutting For Stone. Let me tell you the man didn’t disappoint. The book was phenomenal. It will easily hold a place in my personal top ten favorite books of all time. I wept quite a few times while reading the last hundred pages. Verghese writes so beautifully and compassionately about love, loss and trying to find our way in the world. His writing really appeals to me because he connects medicine, suffering, spirituality and the notion of healing (versus curing) effortlessly with his capacity for empathy.
So, of course, after finishing the book I had to learn more about him and went to the first place anyone with a computer goes these days, wikipedia. In the immortal words of Stephen Colbert, “It is the first place I go when I’m looking for knowledge, or when I want to create some.” And, oh, how I swooned when I learned that “He is renowned at Stanford for his weekly bedside rounds, where he insists on examining patients without knowledge of their diagnosis to demonstrate the wealth of information available from the physical exam.” I’ve only been a nurse for close to four years but having an attending do this is like the healthcare equivalent of a unicorn. I didn’t think such a creature exists. If you have a passion for medicine or are just curious about ways to bring the care back in healthcare I highly recommend his website.
I had started this page with a different quote “The world turns on our every action, and our every omission, whether we know it or not.” But then I found the quote on love and I just loved it so that took the top spot. Following are some longer quotes from him that I found moving.
Love to me has a quality to it like a trip wire – hence we ‘fall’ in love, instead of simply ‘arriving’ to love. Love comes down to a set of wills trying to match and sometimes mismatching in spectacular fashion; I think all love is unrequited unless we have a clone of ourselves and even then the love is unrequited. In my day job I see all too often that people’s appreciation of the existence of love, of the meaning of love, or of the idea that the meaning of life turns out to be love – all these are arrived at too late, when the love is long lost, or arrived at just before the moment of death.
Perhaps what love seeks is not reciprocity but redemption, the sense that who you are is worthy and was always worthy of love.
I think the key to being a good physician, something we all aspire to, is to understand how the illness feels from the patient’s perspective. Sometimes that is hard – how do we ask a 27-year-old medical student to imagine the suffering of someone felled in their fifties with cancer that is incurable?
But the trying, the willingness to engage with the patient, to see yourself in them – to see your own vulnerability, your own variety of fear, your need for reassurance – that goes a long way.
On the difference between curing and healing
Every illness has a physical deficit as well as a sense of spiritual violation. You break your leg and you have a break in the femur, but there’s also a great sense of, “Why me? Why now?” Medicine has done a great job of taking care of the break, but not as a good a job of dealing with the sense of violation people feel with illness.