Verghese, Abraham. “My Own Country: A Doctor’s Story of a Town and its People in the Age of AIDS”, Scribner, 2017.
Johnson City, Tennessee sits in the Smoky Mountains eastern part of the state. In many aspects it seemed frozen in time and without the anxieties of modern America but then the local hospital got its first AIDS patient and modern times seemed to enter the town.
Abraham Verghese was the local doctor whose specialized in infectious diseases and he, by necessity, became the AIDS expert. It did not take very long before he found himself besieged by a shocking number of male and female patients whose stories came to occupy his mind, and even take over his life. Verghese is a doctor who is unique in his abilities. Even as an outsider, he could talk to people who were suspicious of local MDs and he is a man of grace and compassion who saw that what was happening in this conservative community not just a medical emergency but a spiritual one as well. He gives us here a somewhat shocking portrait of small town America as it faces and eventually overcomes prejudices and fears.
In fall 1985 Verghese with his wife and newborn son returned to Johnson City, Tennessee, the place where he had done his internship and residence. As he watched AIDS infect the small town, he and the community learned the power of compassion. He was an AIDS expert who, at first, had no patients. Soon he met with gay men and then eventually others who were struggling with AIDS which in 1985 was anew disease. Verghese’s patients include a factory worker confronting her husband’s AIDS, bisexuality, and her own HIV status and a religious couple infected via a blood transfusion attempting to keep their disease secret from their church and their children. Written as a novel, this nonfiction, detailed story gives us a sincere perspective on the American response to the spread of AIDS. It is so important to have stories like this; I have feared that once AIDS could be controlled it would fade into history like polio did and we cannot think for a moment that there is no longer a disease called AIDS.
Verghese came to Johnson City in 1985, he came as a newly-accredited infectious diseases specialist to treat veterans, most of whom had lung cancer and emphysema, and to spend one day a week in the town medical center he learned to call the “Miracle Center”. When the center’s first AIDS patient entered the hospital, it was the beginning of the plague that soon spread across the country, not just in the big city locales where the majority of homosexual men and drug abusers lived. Many of those infected with AIDS began coming home to die. Verghese is such a caring doctor, he felt a strong push to help. He is a man who has the ability to tolerate human differences and he loved his patients as people, and as when they began to die, he mourned with the families. His patients were always on his mind constantly, even when he was home with his wife and sons to the point and he put his marriage and home at risk because of his devotion to the pace and people that often excluded those patients because they had AIDS.
At that time there were doctors who would not care for AIDS patients and this separated the medical profession. They let their fear of the disease take precedence over their intellect. Dr. Verghese shared an emotional connection to those infected patients even though this is discouraged strongly during medical training and this came at great personal cost. The doctor desired to fit into the community but in doing so he becomes more and more isolated from his family and his colleagues. Dr. Verghese is a brilliant diagnostician and a men who has his great empathy for his patients. He is nonjudgmental in his approach to the gay lifestyle and he is a decent man who is easily approached. As I read I was often intensely moved as his patients began to die and even more important is that I felt the tremendous waste, once again, that the disease brought about.
Dr. Verghese’s struggle to understand the process of dying became a struggle for so many of us. This is a wonderful read; Verghese writes with compassion and humor and as he introduces us to his patients, we feel we get to know them. We need to remember that in the beginning of the AIDS epidemic began, people judged those with the disease and there were doctors who refused to treat it or those that had it. We also forget that not just those who had AIDS were judged but their families and communities were judged as well. Here we get the entire picture and see that Verghese was interested in the patient, the disease, and learning about the gay culture. He did so without prejudice and we all have something to learn from him.
This is the “simple tale of a doctor and his patients, told with quiet compassion and an eye for the small details of human experience”. He shares his fight to keep people alive and we see how just regular and ordinary Americans confronted this new disease with courage.
Having been raised in the South, I can tell you that all too often, Southern Americans are portrayed as bigoted religious homophobes and in some cases this is true. I would have thought that people in Arkansas were more liberal then they are, for example, but I learned differently when I lived there for some seven years. Dr. Verghese tells us of how the close knit families confront and accept their dying sons and husbands and some of you might be very surprised with what he has to say.
We also become very aware of what he faced as he practiced medicine. While this is quite basically a book about AIDS, it is also a book about families, culture, and especially about the life of ordinary physicians who everyday face issues of sickness and mortality.