The Doctor Is In

Can El Paso physician Abraham Verghese build a healthy career as a writer by chronicling life and death? The prognosis is good.

THREE TOY BATMAN FIGURES perch atop a word processor in the small, cluttered El Paso office of Abraham Verghese, and a dozen or so Robins, Jokers, and Batmobiles line the office windowsill. “My kids got tired of them after a while,” he says, “so instead of throwing them away, I just brought them here.”

Like the caped crusader, the 42-year-old Verghese lives a dual existence: doctor by day and writer by night—or vice versa, depending on what day it is. Verghese the writer produces articles and essays that appear in periodicals like Esquire and the New York Times and powerful, disturbing short stories that grace the pages of The New Yorker, Granta, and various small literary magazines. My Own Country: A Doctor’s Story of a Town and Its People in the Age of AIDS, his highly acclaimed 1994 memoir about his experiences treating AIDS patients in rural Tennessee, was nominated for the prestigious National Book Critics Circle Award and was praised by New York Times columnist Frank Rich as “one of the most affecting [books] the plague has created.” As a doctor, Verghese (pronounced “Vur- geese”) confronts villains like AIDS, cancer, and tuberculosis several times a week when he and a gaggle of white-jacketed medical students look in on patients at El Paso’s R. E. Thomason General Hospital, the teaching hospital of the Texas Tech Health Sciences Center, where he is a tenured professor of internal medicine and the head of the infectious diseases and geriatrics divisions. Located in the heart of the barrio, Thomason General is the only public hospital for a city of nearly 600,000, as well as for an unknown number of Juárez residents.

Not all of what Verghese sees and hears at work shows up in his fiction; still, the life-and-death atmosphere he experiences there nourishes him in ways that may not be immediately obvious. And he’s equally invigorated by El Paso itself: Something about this gritty, history-laden border city nourishes him—just as it does Cormac McCarthy and Dagoberto Gilb and Rick DeMarinis and Benjamin Sáenz and numerous other members of what may be the most vital writing community in Texas. Why El Paso nurtures writers is something of a mystery, although Gilb, who moved to the city from Los Angeles in 1976, thinks he knows. “It’s a good place to go to disappear,” he says. Indeed, with its relentless sun and hard-edged landscape, its restless mix of cultures, and the whiff of danger emanating from Juárez, El Paso is to Texas as Albert Camus’ Algeria was to France: a fine place for writers to confront life boiled down to its existential essence.

It’s certainly that for Verghese, who was born in Ethiopia to Indian parents, immigrated to the United States in 1974, and has lived in El Paso since 1991. “I came here for a job interview and absolutely fell in love with the place,” he says. “Walking over to Juárez, suddenly I was in the Third World again. With my skin color, I could disappear. There were so many different mythologies here—Spanish conquistador, Pueblo Indian, Cormac McCarthy’s Wild West—but there was plenty of room for an African-born Indian to weave his own myth.”

Like V. S. Naipaul, another writer with Indian roots, Verghese navigates in the interstices between borders. His parents were teachers in Kerala, a state in southern India, when Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie visited the subcontinent in the early fifties. Selassie was so impressed with the high level of literacy in Kerala that he recruited some of its teachers, among them Verghese’s parents, to move to his country; Verghese was born in Addis Ababa, the capital city, in 1955.

As a teenager, Verghese thought he might become a journalist, but his parents told him that young Indian men were expected to pursue more respectable and remunerative professions—the law, perhaps, or medicine. He remembered how he had been inspired by Of Human Bondage, Somerset Maugham’s autobiographical novel about a young Englishman who in medical school finds, in Maugham’s words, “humanity there in the rough, the materials the artist worked on.” Verghese entered medical school in Ethiopia when he was sixteen but left during his third year, after civil war had toppled the emperor and the country spiraled into chaos. He joined his parents in America, where they had settled three years earlier. “It was a terrible feeling, being labeled an expatriate in your own country,” Verghese recalls of the revolution. “I loved Ethiopia. I spoke Amharic fluently, had an Ethiopian girlfriend.” He has never been back.

In the States, Verghese began working nights as an orderly in various New Jersey nursing homes. In 1975 he applied to continue his training at a respected medical school in Madras, India, which accepted him as “a displaced person.” Five years later he returned to America with his wife and their two sons for an internship and residency at East Tennessee State University, then studied infectious diseases at Boston University. In 1985 Verghese moved back to Tennessee, where he worked out of a veterans hospital in Johnson City, a town of 50,000. He had expected to see one or two AIDS patients a year, but soon he was carrying a constant caseload of eighty to a hundred—many of them young gay men. “Actually I was taking care of two diseases: the virus and the shame and embarrassment these young men were experiencing,” he recalls. “After a while I began to feel isolated in town. I was known only as the AIDS doctor, almost as if I were responsible for bringing the illness to Johnson City.”

In 1989, emotionally and physically drained, his marriage suffering from the strain of his work, Verghese left Tennessee with his family and moved to Iowa City, Iowa, where he was accepted in the prestigious University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. “What my AIDS patients were telling me was ‘Live your life. Don’t wait,’” Verghese says. “It may have cost me my marriage.” Within two years he and his wife had separated. (He remarried last October; he met

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