My Own Country: A Doctor’s Story of a Town and Its People in the Age of AIDS is more than a series of case histories or a chronicle of the doctor-patient relationship. It is also an intensely personal story of one man’s search for a sense of belonging and a country to think of as home, and how he finds it, at least for a short while, among his AIDS patients and their families in a small, out-of-the-way corner of the world in rural Tennessee.
Abraham Verghese truly was a man without a home. The child of teachers from southern India, he was born and reared in Ethiopia, where he began studying medicine. His schooling interrupted by war and political unrest there, he came to America, finding work as an orderly in hospitals and nursing homes in New Jersey. Eventually finishing his medical education in India, he returned to the United States in 1980 (at about the same time the AIDS virus entered the country) and began his residency in infectious diseases at the Mountain Home Veterans Administration Hospital and Johnson City Medical Center in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains.
Upon completing his residency, he accepted a research fellowship at Boston City College, where, in July of 1983, he encountered his first AIDS patient. The fellowship completed, he turned down an offer to stay on at Boston to pursue his research, opting instead to return to rural Tennessee, where he had been offered a staff position at the VA hospital and an assistant professorship at East Tennessee State. He returned to Johnson City, “the embodiment of small-town America,” seeking a home, a secure environment for his wife, Rajani, and their infant son, Steven: “Johnson City was going to be my town. I felt at peace in this corner of east Tennessee. Finally, this was my own country.”
A sense of peace, however, proved more elusive than Verghese could have ever imagined. Instead, because of the wholly unexpected presence of a considerable number of AIDS cases in this town of fifty thousand—“a hundredfold more cases than the CDC would have predicted”—he became, by virtue of his specialization in infectious diseases, the area’s AIDS expert. At first called upon merely to give interviews to the local paper and lecture on safe sex at the area’s only gay bar, he had no AIDS patients until a year after his return to Tennessee. Then a former coworker, Essie Vines, asked him to examine her brother Gordon. Like many rural gays, Gordon had left his small town at the first opportunity, seeking the more accepting atmosphere of big-city life, only to return home to die of AIDS. Gordon’s plight, and his family’s compassionate and courageous reaction to it, drew Verghese inexorably into the emotionally charged world of AIDS.
After Gordon, AIDS patients began seeking out Verghese with increasing frequency, running the gamut from “Tennessee queens” to pillars of the community. Many managed to fashion courage, dignity, and humanity from the most desperate circumstances and leave an indelible impression on both Abraham Verghese and the reader: Ed Maupin and Bobby Keller, a diesel truck mechanic and a boutique salesclerk who had been having sex together since they were seven years old; “good old boy” Clyde McCray, who contracted the disease from a friend of his parents who seduced him as a child; Clyde’s wife Vickie, who, although HIV-positive herself, lovingly cared for the husband who infected her and in the process became active in AIDS organizations, making new friends and gaining self-respect; Norman Sanger, a hemophiliac who had already suffered a lifetime of horrifying health problems and was determined to face his final battle with courage and dignity; Will Johnson, a devout Christian and successful businessman, infected from a massive blood transfusion during heart surgery, and his wife, Bess, both of...
(The entire section is 1563 words.)