Monday, January 21, 2013

Book Review: My Own Country: A Doctor's Story by Abraham Verghese

I am reading Mr. Verghese's books in reverse order. Which is why I do know what will happen to his marriage after the book is over, although he does not. But it didn't hurt my reading of the book at all. Luckily, each of his books are on pretty discrete topics, even if both My Own Country and The Tennis Partner are also traditional memoirs.

In My Own Country, Dr. Verghese is a brand-new doctor in the mid-90s, who has specialized in infectious diseases, partly because AIDS looks like it will make ID a very interesting specialty. But then Abraham and his family, in search of a home that truly feels like home, settle in East Tennessee, a place where it seems like AIDS will never touch. Johnson City is a small city in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains where families have lived for generations and there don't even seem to be any gays, although Abraham knows that can't be true. He works partly at the VA, partly at the local hospital, and partly in a private practice. And while he and his wife are settling in, and trying to find their place in the newly burgeoning international community, to his surprise, an AIDS case does show up at the hospital. And then another. And another. While Abraham was correct in his initial assumption that AIDS was unlikely to be spreading in Johnson City, what he hadn't anticipated was men in New York and San Francisco would want to return home when they became sick, and that is where the majority of his patients came from.

A motley, humorous, and eclectic group, his patients touch his heart, reinforce his calling, and put a strain on all his other relationships. Not only are his wife and parents worried about him, working with AIDS patients, but even other doctors and nurses are prejudiced, ignorant, and occasionally just cruel. But Abraham labors on, determined to do as much good he can, without any drugs that can do more than treat a few of the symptoms. As he goes on, AZT does come on the market and is initially a miracle drug, but eventually most all of his patients do succumb.

While this is primarily a memoir about medicine, it is also a memoir of home. Abraham (and his wife) is trying very much to find his place in the world. He has always felt out of a place, from the very beginning as an Indian born and raised in Africa, and throughout stays in New York and Boston, he has still felt on the fringes of society. There is a surprisingly large number of Indians in Johnson City who they do socialize with, but he seems to feel most at home when he's at work with his patients. In a way, that is his country. His country isn't Ethiopia or India or the United States, it is medicine.

Smoothly written without much medical jargon, Dr. Verghese deftly conveys his feelings of displacement and belonging, he writes about his patients with respect and fondness, and I really felt like I could have walked into his office and instantly recognized everyone there. A perfect companion book to And The Band Played On, but not a book only about AIDS. It is about life and death and love and loss and the human condition, in every permutation.

I bought this book at my local independent bookstore, Park Road Books.

1 comment:

Booksnyc said...

Thanks for introducing me to this one - it sounds good. I am always interested in memoirs by physicians and especially those who can write!