From Mark Levine, the Doc with Pink Tights
Reading Beyond the Pink Tights

Reading is a key part of my professional life, but I also enjoy reading a book for relaxation, particularly at the end of the day. Last June, I had the privilege of meeting Dr. Abraham Verghese, who was given an honorary degree by McMaster University. He is Professor for the Theory and Practice of Medicine at Stanford University Medical School. He teaches medical students about clinical medicine, especially the humane aspect.

He is best known as a writer. He was born and raised in Ethiopia. His parents were from India. He went to medical school in India, then went to the United States for internship followed by a residency in internal medicine and training in infectious disease. In 1985, he took up his first consultant position in Johnson City in eastern Tennessee.

After I heard him speak at McMaster, I was stimulated to read his book Cutting for Stone (2009). Set in Ethiopia, it begins in 1954 with a Carmelite nun giving birth to twins at a missionary hospital. Sadly, she dies at childbirth.

The story tells of the growing-up of both boys, Marion and Shiva, who become doctors. The backdrop is Ethiopia over half a century, from the days of Emperor Haile Selassie to his deposition and civil war. The book contains descriptions of many medical diseases and interventions. The title relates to the oath of Hippocrates that calls his acolytes not to cut for (bladder) stones. A major message of the book is that a physician needs to show empathy toward a patient. The book remained on the New York Times bestseller list for more than two years.

I recently read his first book called My Own Country. He describes his experience in treating AIDS in rural Tennessee. The book is auto-biographical and beautifully written. His experience taking care of AIDS patients and their families is described in detail. He writes with emotion, dignity and respect.

It is during the six years he spent in Johnson City that he experienced a personal transformation in his practice of medicine. He learned about the humanity and humility of medicine, i.e. taking care of the patient with empathy and understanding, the need to imagine what the patient is experiencing. I recognized the importance of this in my own practice but it took a number of years.

Eastern Tennessee is not an area where one would expect the HIV epidemic to reach. Verghese provides a thoughtful theory on why this happened, but you will have to read the book to find out. This book was one of five chosen as Best Book of the year (1996) by Time magazine.

You may wonder why I am writing about books in my breast cancer blog. There are several reasons.

First, both books are about the ‘art of medicine.’ Patients are very dependent on their oncologists. In today’s fast-moving and high-tech world, the humane aspects of medicine are being lost. Communication, listening and trying to imagine what a patient is going through are key elements of care. It took me many years to learn about these concepts through experience in my own practice.

Second, I hope that my sharing with you two books that I have really liked tells you a little more about me beyond the doc in the pink tights.