Novelist Abraham Verghese to be honored by Obama with Humanities Medal

Abraham Verghese, MD, professor of medicine at the Stanford School of Medicine, was awarded a National Humanities Medal, the White House announced. President Barack Obama conferred the medal at a White House ceremony Sept. 22. “Abraham Verghese is not only an exemplary clinician, he is an exemplary humanist,” said Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne. “Every day in the classroom, he teaches his students that professions such as medicine benefit from an understanding of the human condition. We are so proud that his breadth of scholarship has been recognized with this honor.”

“I am humbled and excited by this honor,” said Verghese, who is the Linda R. Meier and Joan F. Lane Provostial Professor. “The names of previous recipients include writers I most admire. It’s a wonderful affirmation of a path that in the early years I wasn’t sure was the right path, even though it was one I felt compelled to follow.”

Abraham Verghese, 61, whose books based on experiences of real health crises woven into moving experiences, have drawn critical acclaim worldwide and several awards, will be honored in a White House ceremony, along with numerous others. Currently the Linda R. Meier and Joan F. Lane Provostial Professor at Stanford University, Verghese also earned a Master of Fine Arts degree at the University of Iowa, focused on fiction writing.

Born in Ethiopia in 1955, Verghese had to cut short his medical training in Addis Ababa when Emperor Haile Selassie was deposed and civil unrest broke out. He joined his parents in the U.S. and worked as an orderly in a hospital before going to India to study medicine at Madras Medical College. He came back to the U.S. to do his residency at East Tennessee State University, later returning to the South to witness the devastation caused by the AIDS epidemic.

His first book, My Own Country: A Doctor’s Story, was based on those experiences of seeing young men die with little but emotional support that he could give them for the then little-known disease. His other book, Cutting for Stone, was set in Ethiopia from where it moved to America. “I wanted the reader to see how entering medicine was a passionate quest, a romantic pursuit, a spiritual calling, a privileged yet hazardous undertaking,” He is quoted saying about that book. “It’s a view of medicine I don’t think too many young people see in the West because, frankly, in the sterile hallways of modern medical-industrial complexes, where physicians and nurses are hunkered down behind computer monitors, and patients are whisked off here and there for all manner of tests, that side of medicine gets lost.”

His citation, which will be read aloud at the Sept. 22 ceremony as the President places the medal on him, reads as follows – “Abraham Verghese for reminding us that the patient is the center of the medical enterprise. His range of proficiency embodies the diversity of the humanities; from his efforts to emphasize empathy in medicine, to his imaginative renderings of the human drama.”

Inaugurated in 1997, the National Humanities Medal “honors individuals or groups whose work has deepened the nation’s understanding of the human experience, broadened citizens’ engagement with history, literature, languages, philosophy, and other humanities subjects,” according to the National Endowment for the Humanities website. As many as 12 medals are awarded each year.

The organization said Verghese received the medal “for reminding us that the patient is the center of the medical enterprise.  His range of proficiency embodies the diversity of the humanities; from his efforts to emphasize empathy in medicine, to his imaginative renderings of the human drama.”

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