For Dr. Abraham Verghese, who inspires me.
This evening on the way home from Boston I finished a book that I had started more than a month ago, on my way back from Albuquerque. Well, that is not entirely truthful. I stopped reading on page 408, because if I had kept going everyone on the plane would have seen me cry. I finished it at home a few hours later. The book is called “My Own Country—a Doctor’s Story” by Abraham Verghese. I had read his novel, “Cutting for Stone” last year and wanted to read more. This book, “My Own Country” is autobiographical, detailing the author’s early years after residency and a fellowship in infectious disease in Boston, as doctor caring for the first HIV positive and AIDS patients in rural Tennessee in the early 1980’s, when there was no treatment for the infection, and doctors watched helplessly as each and every patient they cared for died.
I am old enough to be all too familiar with this scenario—in 1982 I was a resident in radiation oncology married to an attending in pulmonology and infectious diseases and we were both seeing the ravages of this disease for which there was yet no blood test, only a constellation of symptoms and opportunistic infections that had heretofore been seen only in the most immunosuppressed cancer patients. It would be a few years before the medical profession figured out the exact mode of transmission, and discovered the retrovirus that caused the illness—and a few more years before the first treatment, the drug AZT was approved. In the meantime, we watched the patients die, and it was not pretty. In lighter moments, I would joke that we were the “fun” couple at the cocktail party—cancer and AIDS, AIDS and cancer. In private, I realized that if I had to choose between one or the other, I would choose cancer. At least most of my patients had a fighting chance. My husband’s, at the time, did not.
Verghese left Tennessee, and a job he loved but which had clearly taken its toll on him personally, in 1989. My husband left his post as the Chief of Pulmonary Medicine at the New England Deaconess Hospital in 1992. If you ask him, he will say it was the lure of the biotech boom, and the promise of stock options and an early retirement. But I think there was another side to it, the side that is difficult for doctors to talk about, that part of the job where each time a patient dies, a little part of the soul of the doctor dies with him. In Boston, the pediatric oncologists at the Jimmy Fund were my heroes—to me, watching children die would be the hardest job of all. The AIDS doctors, before the development of the drug combinations which have turned HIV infection into a chronic disease, had the second hardest job.
I’ve moved around quite a bit in my career—five years here, five years there, Houston, Boston, San Diego. Every five years or so, I start to get a bit restless, and I look for something new, something different. I like to say I need a new challenge. Tonight, finishing Verghese’s book, I realized that he was able to put into words that nagging need for transformation, relocation, and change so I will quote him: “It all happened so suddenly. I left my own country, my beloved Tennessee. Perhaps my perennial migrations, almost hereditary, are a way to avoid loss. With deep roots come great comforts. Yet deep attachments are the hardest to lose. Maybe that is why drifters avoid them.”
For most of us doctors, leaving is easier said than done, for medicine is our own country.