The Great Lie that Tells the Truth: Abraham Verghese (Transcript)

Full text of best-selling author and physician Abraham Verghese’s talk: The Great Lie that Tells the Truth at TEDxStanford conference.

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Abraham Verghese – Best-Selling Author and Physician

When I was a boy, I loved stories. I loved the way the little signals on the page, that we call words, could transport me out of my bedroom portals onto a Spanish galleon, onto the wine-dark sea, onto a British frigate, fighting in the Napoleonic Wars.

I love the novels of C. S. Forester. I loved his character, Horatio Hornblower, following him as he became midshipman, then a lieutenant, then a captain, then a Commodore, an admiral. Wonderful ways to travel the world.

But it was also sensing that there were fundamental truths that were emerging from these novels. They were teaching me much more than school taught me. For example, when I was a schoolboy, I came across this particular line: “I thank God daily for the good fortune of my birth, for I’m certain I would have made a miserable peasant.”

And I was growing up in Africa, surrounded by many people who were less well off than we were. And I don’t think until that moment it had registered that my lot could have been different. And when I became an adult, I stumbled onto this following quote from Dorothy Allison. And she said; “Fiction is the great lie that tells the truth about how the world lives.”

And that exactly captured my sense of what stories were all about from the time I was a boy. I went into medicine because I thought medicine was very much about story, and I was never disappointed. And I see my writing, such as it is emerging, out of that same passion for medicine and story.

And I wanted to share with you a passage that I’ll recite for you, that has to do with the death of this gentleman who, in his time, was the most famous physician in the world. This is Anton Chekhov; not to be confused with this [Pavel Andreievich] Chekov.

Chekhov, unfortunately, died young, of tuberculosis of a very treatable condition. And in the last year of his life, he married. He married the stage actress, Olga Knipper, and she knew that he was going to die, he knew he was going to die, and they had a wonderful year together.

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And in the last year of his life, he suddenly decided he wanted to go to the Black Forest of Germany, to the Badenweiler spa. And being a dying man, Olga was not about to deny him, so she took him there. And when he first got there, it seemed magical. His color peeked, he stopped coughing as much, and he had a lot of energy.

But then on the fifth day, he broke out with massive hemoptysis, coughing up of blood, which is a terrifying symptom for both the patient and a physician because not only are you losing blood, the airway is compromised. And so, they called the spa physician, a man by the name of Dr. Schwer.

And the passage that I am about to recite is from Troyat, its wonderful biography of Chekhov and the passage goes like this: “The windows were wide open but Chekhov could not stop panting, his temples were bathed in sweat’. Doctor Schwer arrived at two o’clock and Chekhov, in a final reflex of courtesy, leaned back against the pillows and said, “Exterbe, I am dying”, mastering his weak German.

Doctor Schwer ordered a camphor injection but Chekhov’s heart failed to react. Dr. Schwer was about to send for an oxygen pillow when Chekhov lucid to the end protested in a broken voice, “what’s the use, doctor”, he said “before it comes, I will be a corpse.”

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