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Listen to patients, doctor/novelist Abraham Verghese says at Cindy Wool seminar

Abraham Verghese, M.D.

In this age of high-tech medicine compassion can often be neglected, but the annual Cindy Wool Memorial Seminar helps provide a remedy for healthcare professionals in Tucson. The third seminar and dinner on humanism in medicine, held March 28 at the Marriott University Park Hotel, sought to support physicians in practicing empathy while embracing cutting-edge science.

This year’s seminar drew around 600 medical professionals to honor the memory of Cindy Wool, who died of acute leukemia three years ago.

Her husband, Dr. Steven A. Wool, and Dr. Hillel Baldwin co-chaired the event, sponsored by the Maimonides Society of the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona in conjunction with the University of Arizona College of Medicine. Abraham Verghese, M.D., author of the New York Times best-selling novel “Cutting for Stone,” was the keynote speaker.

“I think we’re actually getting worse at examining the body as we have more technology,” said the physician/author in his talk, “The Patient-Physician Relationship in the Microarray Era.” Currently the Professor for the Theory and Practice of Medicine at Stanford University College of Medicine, Verghese was born to Indian parents and grew up near Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. He worked as an orderly for a year before beginning his medical studies in India, followed by a fellowship at the Boston University School of Medicine.

Taking a break from his medical career, Verghese attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa, where he received an MFA degree in 1991. After leaving Iowa, he took a position as a professor of medicine at the Texas Tech Health Science Center in El Paso, Texas, and later was founding director of the Center for Medical Humanities & Ethics at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio.

His commitment to the one-on-one physical exam was apparent in his talk in Tucson, where he spoke of “the notion of the body as text.”

“We’ve only been examining the body since the 1700s, not for many centuries,” said Verghese, adding that prior to the invention of x-rays a physician “could tell if there was a cavity in the lung by percussing the chest.”

“I’m not a Luddite, I love technology,” said Verghese, while stressing the importance of the mutual connection between doctors and patients. He told the story of a breast cancer patient who was getting worse despite treatment “at a high-class hospital. Back in her small town, she said, ‘They didn’t examine my breasts.’ That inattentiveness she could not abide.”

Verghese asked the audience to consider how often they’ve witnessed a physician not taking his eyes off a computer monitor while talking to a patient.

Plus, “the average doctor interrupts a patient in the first 14 seconds,” said Verghese, recalling a patient who had chronic fatigue syndrome. “I let the patient tell the whole story for 45 minutes. Once we slipped into the ritual of the exam the patient said, ‘I’ve never been examined like this.’

“What a condemnation of our medical system,” lamented Verghese.

“What the horse and buggy doctor was capable of doing was the power of visiting the patient,” he said. “There could be healing when there wasn’t a cure.”

Verghese’s unique position as a physician and a best-selling author was on the minds of some attendees during the question and answer period. “I don’t have two careers as a physician and a writer,” he said in response to a question. “I’m all physician. To me the writing comes out of that in some strange way. You have to be in the river of life to have something to say.”