Dr. Abraham Verghese’s account of his five years (1985-90) spent working with AIDS patients in the American Bible Belt is a heartbreaking chronicle of a medical and human catastrophe in microcosm. But My Own Country (Simon & Schuster) is also an unsentimental and careful meditation on the tenacious craving for a home in the world. Verghese is an African-born Indian who, as a ”foreign” doctor in east Tennessee, felt like an outsider. Yet more than his rootlessness, or the color of his skin, it was the nature of his clinical practice that made him, finally, an untouchable.
The irony is that Verghese never wanted to become an AIDS crusader. The last thing he had expected to find in a small town of 50,000 in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains was a burgeoning AIDS epidemic. Yet with his training in infectious diseases, Verghese soon became the primary-care physician for every AIDS patient in Johnson City. Because of his sympathy, he became far more than a doctor: ”My job was to minister to the patient’s soul, his psyche, pay attention to his family and his social situation.” But practicing this kind of old-fashioned, folksy medicine exacted its price. Spending long hours at the bedsides of the terminally ill meant fewer hours spent at home. His fellow doctors kept their distance and never hesitated to display their annoyance—sometimes subtly, sometimes not—when asked to consult. Even in his sleep, Verghese wasn’t freed from the ordeal: Night after night, he would dream that he had been infected and wake up trembling.
<p.This is not, for all of its superb craft, an easy book to read—fear and dying and hard deaths fill nearly every page. But the incredible heroism of Verghese's patients and the dedication of one embattled physician, who is aggressively honest from the beginning to the end about his own shortcomings and hubris, make My Own Country unforgettable.