April 27, 2001

Verghese encourages listening to patients

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Dr. Abraham Verghese was the guest lecturer at the Phillip W. Felts Lecture Series in Humanities. (photo by Anne Rayner)

Verghese encourages listening to patients

A patient history is much more than clinical jargon entered on a chart, a Texas physician told those attending the annual Phillip W. Felts Lecture Series in the Humanities last week.

It’s a story that unfolds before the physician’s eyes. The physician, by listening and taking the history, becomes a character in the story, said Dr. Abraham Verghese during the seventh annual Felts lecture.

“Even though we record the voice of medicine in the chart, we should keep alive the voice of the patient and the memorable things that make that patient stand out,” Verghese said. “We should also be willing to invent new metaphors and be willing to write about disease in memorable and unforgettable ways, using colorful imagery to describe disease instead of mind-numbing acronyms. We should not just be doctors…but ministers of opinion, storytellers and storymakers, players in the greatest drama of all, the story of our patient’s lives.”

Verghese, an infectious disease specialist and a professor of Medicine at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center, as well as a writer, served his internal medicine residency at east Tennessee State University in Johnson City, then served a fellowship at Boston University before returning to Johnson City to practice. It was there that he compiled the experiences and struggles of the emergency of AIDS in rural Tennessee, in “My Own Country: A Doctor’s Story.” He has also written “The Tennis Partner: A Doctor’s Story of Friendship and Loss.” In addition to his books, Verghese has numerous publications ranging from short stories to basic science and clinical research journal articles.

The lecture is named for Felts, who served as Vanderbilt University School of Medicine’s assistant dean of Student Affairs from 1975 until 1988. Felts was an accomplished gourmet cook and cooked often for students at his rustic home, “The Mountain.” He loved opera, music and writing.

Most of all, Felts mastered the art of the dean’s letter – letters of recommendation sent for graduating medical students who are applying for residencies, said Dr. Robert F. Miller, assistant clinical professor of Medicine, and a 1982 VUSM graduate who became a friend of Felts.

“Each letter was a masterpiece, describing the student academically, socially and probably politically. They were real student portraits,” said Miller, husband of Dr. Bonnie M. Miller, associate dean for Medical Students at VUSM.

“He was a dear friend to our students,” he added. “He knew the VMS 1’s (first year medical students) on the first day and remembered them long after medical school. Dr. Felts took care of his students.”