on April 25, 1995
Genres: Nonfiction, Personal Memoirs
Nestled in the Smoky Mountains of eastern Tennessee, the town of Johnson City saw its first AIDS patient in August 1985. Working in Johnson City was Abraham Verghese, a young Indian doctor specializing in infectious diseases who became, by necessity, the local AIDS expert. Out of his experience comes a startling, ultimately uplifting portrait of the American heartland.
I have been coming across books in the most roundabout ways recently. For March’s 6 Degrees of Separation post I needed a book set in Ethiopia. I thought of Cutting for Stone which I’ve never read so I wasn’t absolutely sure that’s where it was set. I looked it up on Goodreads and saw that the author wrote this book about his life in Tennessee. Was I actually mixing up Ethiopia and Tennessee in my mind? Not exactly. He was in rural east Tennessee at about the same time I was in school there. That intrigued me.
In the late 1980s he finished his residency as an infectious disease specialist in Boston. He decided to take a job in Tennessee for the slower pace and better quality of life. He planned to split his time between a VA nursing home/hospital and a small public hospital.
At the same time he moved to Tennessee, the first AIDS cases were appearing in the area. He had seen AIDS patients in Boston. His experience in infectious disease made him the logical doctor for people to refer patients to in the area. At this point there was no real treatment. All he could do was monitor their blood counts and support them through their secondary diseases. At first the community of AIDS patients was small and he spent a lot of time going into their homes and getting to know them and their families.
The initial patients he saw were gay men who had moved away from the area in order to lead more open lives in big cities. Now they were sick and were coming home for help from their families. There was a huge stigma. AIDS was a curse handed down for sinful behavior in a lot of the minds of the people of the area. Even the local gay community didn’t think it was in their local group. Many nurses refused to work with the patients. Some protested even offering them treatment in the hospital at all since it was ultimately futile.
Dr. Verghese had to confront his own bigotry. He was uncomfortable at first with gay men. He later concerned that he was showing preferential treatment to an elderly couple who had been infected by the husband’s blood transfusion. Was he falling into the “innocent victim” mentality towards AIDS? How did he feel about the man with AIDS-related dementia who had infected both his wife and her sister?
Even though this book was written in 1995, I would recommend it for anyone interested in medical history. This is an account of the front lines of an AIDS epidemic as it moved into an area. He is a very empathetic and compassionate writer who gave so much of himself to the patients that he ended up destroying his own marriage.