My Own Country: A Doctor’s Story of a Town and its People in the Age of AIDS
Verghese’s parents were from Kerala, India but taught school in Ethiopia, where Abraham was born, and given his Christian name. He specialized in Infectious Diseases when he finished his medical training in the US. Look for a job he took one in Johnson City, Tennessee. But unlike other foreign doctors, he found a home here. Then the AIDS epidemic hit, slowly at first and then a wave of patients. Some patients came home to die, some were local. Verghese took care of them as best he could. Before AZT there was little he could do but treat the symptoms and other diseases that attacked his weakened patients. With AIDS came fear. A fear of the known and unknown. A fear that Verghese fought against his coworker, family, and even himself. In hindsight it’s easy to question the negative response of people to AIDS, but at the time, no one new for sure what would or wouldn’t happen. Viruses mutate and one could easily imagine the disease could racing through a hospital and into the population. Which makes Verghese’s care of his patients all the more extraordinary. Verghese tries to make a strong personal connection to these doomed patients.
This book also shows the good and the bad in rural Tennessee as people learn about the sub culture of gay men in their midst.
A support community forms around these guy men and the people who take care of them. Verghese becomes tied to his patients in a way that puts enormous strains on his relationships with his wife and family. His job takes enormous amounts of emotional energy and time. Verghese has to choose between his patients and his family. Dr. Verghese slowly burns out. He has nightmares about getting AIDS and even worse giving it to his family. The book ends as Verghese takes a research job up north.
I’m curious how much of the book is fictionalized. I wonder what the release forms for each of the patients and families must have looked like, because there is a lot of personal details coming from their doctor.
I would also be interested in a follow up book, as Verghese leaves his practice in Tennessee just as treatments and cures are coming to market. It would interest to hear his take on the CDC, ACT-UP, and at hospitals all over the world.
The reader is taken on quite a ride, and there are passages that are deeply moving. Be prepared to tear up.
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Excerpts From The Kindle
That morning, there was ‘nothing’ to do for Scotty, but it took me almost an hour to achieve it. It was a peculiarly distasteful task for me: much of ICU care has this futile quality, this illusion of purposefulness generated by the trappings of technology and invasive procedures. A novice in medicine sees only the drama of the pacemaker and the Swan-Ganz catheter; more years in medicine and you see how suffering is prolonged, hospital bills multiplied tenfold, the possibility of a dignified death diminished.
“Do you think you compromised your beliefs by coming back and taking on the role you did in your town?” “No, I feel it was more a growth process than a compromise. I met with the pastor privately once a week. Even though he did not agree with my outlooks on sexuality, he did not believe it impaired my ability to be a Christian. He believed in me. My perseverance and his have paid off. He turned out to be right in terms of my not bringing up my gayness right off the bat so people could make an issue of it.
I have lived for five years in a culture of disease, a small island in a sea of fear. I have seen many things there. I have seen how life speeds up and heightens in climates of extreme pain and emotion. It is hard to live in these circumstances, despite the acts of tenderness that can lighten everything. But it is also hard to pull away from the extreme, from life lived far from mundane conversation. Never before AIDS and Johnson City have I felt so close to love and pain, so connected to other people. How can I pull Rajani across the gulf of our experience?