Abraham Verghese, M.D.

Abraham Verghese has a short piece in the New York Times Magazine on his experience working with evacuees from Katrina who had been sent to San Antonio.

I've been a fan of Verghese's since I read his memoir My Own Country: A Doctor's Story some years ago. In the early 1980s, Verghese, an immigrant doctor from India (via east Africa), cared for AIDS patients in rural Tennessee -- when most people thought AIDS was some kind of gay cancer, and when no one in Tennessee thought the disease could be present in their state (it was, of course). In addition to caring for people with AIDS, Verghese took it upon himself to educate the public about the dangers of the disease, which included visiting gay bars (in the daytime) to hold seminars on the transmission of AIDS... It adds up to some pretty surreal scenes.

I have great respect for what doctors do (there are a number of doctors in my family), and I have particular respect for Verghese's sense of compassion, which is in evidence again in this piece.

Here is the the part of the current article that caught my eye:

He told me that for two nights after the floods, he had perched on a ledge so narrow that his legs dangled in the water. At one point, he said, he saw Air Force One fly over, and his hopes soared. "I waited, I waited," he said, but no help came. Finally a boat got him to a packed bridge. There, again, he waited. He shook his head in disbelief, smiling though. "Doc, they treat refugees in other countries better than they treated us."

"I'm so sorry," I said. "So sorry."

He looked at me long and hard, cocking his head as if weighing my words, which sounded so weak, so inadequate. He rose, holding out his hand, his posture firm as he shouldered his garbage bag. "Thank you, Doc. I needed to hear that. All they got to say is sorry. All they got to say is sorry."

I was still troubled by him when I left, even though he seemed the hardiest of all. This encounter between two Americans, between doctor and patient, had been carried to all the fullness that was permitted, and yet it was incomplete, as if he had, as a result of this experience, set in place some new barriers that neither I nor anyone else would ever cross.

The unstated irony in this encounter between an exhausted, frustrated patient and his doctor is the reference to "refugees in other countries." Verghese has to be aware that what the patient is thinking is "countries like the one you come from." But the patient had the discretion not to say it, and Verghese found the right words to respond.

At the end, Verghese describes the event as an "encounter between two Americans," which in some sense adds to the irony -- though there's no question that Verghese is absolutely sincere when he affirms his status as an American.

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Bit of trivia: Mira Nair directed a made-for-TV film version of My Own Country back in 1998, starring Naveen Andrews as the young Dr. Verghese.