Healing Metaphors – A Q&A with Abraham Verghese

At TEDMED 2014, physician and author Abraham Verghese shared a compelling and original perspective on the impact of language on medicine. In the Q&A below, he reveals more about how embracing our creative selves can help preserve the humanity in healthcare.

Abraham shares why it's important to breathe life back into medical language. [Photo: Kevork Djansezian, for TEDMED]

Abraham shares why it’s important to breathe life back into medical language. [Photo: Kevork Djansezian, for TEDMED] 

Why does this talk matter now? What impact do you hope the talk will have?

I was struck by the colorful metaphors that peppered medical descriptions in years past – the “strawberry” tongue, the “Mulberry” molar, the “Apple core” lesion of the colon, and so many more. I’ve found it so hard to believe that – with the avalanche of new diseases, new science and new technology – we simply haven’t developed new metaphors quite as colorful as the “saber-shinned tibia” or the “crackpot’s skull” of years past. It’s a peculiar atrophy of the imagination at a time when our scientific imagination knows no bounds. I think our right brains are churning, wanting to label and make colorful and to connect, but the imagined constraints of science and data have introduced a peculiar self-consciousness. I’m hoping that my talk encourages us to create more eponyms, more metaphors, and more colorful ways of capturing this incredible time we live in.

What is the legacy you want to leave?

I’d like to think that, in the era of tremendous advances in science and in medicine, I tried to keep us from losing sight of the patient, that vulnerable human being who gave us the great privilege of being with them at their time of need. What that human being needs in addition to our robotic technology, our beautiful diagnostic tools, is a caring relationship with another human being. I’d like to think that I spoke strongly for that and that I introduced a generation or more of students to the bedside and to that special privilege.

William Osler is quoted as saying that he desired no other epitaph “…than the statement that I taught medical students in the wards, as I regard this as by far the most useful and important work I have been called upon to do.” I don’t know that he actually used that on his tombstone, but I understand the sentiment. Every single student I work with at the bedside (even though the process might seem inefficient to be working with just one or two students) has the potential to go out and, in a lifetime, care for hundreds and thousands of patients. So, if you influence them well, you truly have leveraged something in the best sense of that word. I’d like my legacy to be about that work, both at the physical bedside but also metaphorically, and having brought readers and listeners to that sacred space and having perhaps conveyed in every manner that I could, the romance and passion and privilege of being in medicine. It’s not a business and never will be. Even though it enriches a lot of people, and even though it seems to be very much a business, medicine will always be a calling.

What’s next for you?

I have in mind the shaping of something I am calling “The Center for the Patient and Physician,” which I think of as a place to explore every aspect of the patient-physician relationship. At one level it will be pedagogy, teaching at the bedside and refining methods for teachers. But it will also be bringing in folks from a multitude of disciplines. For example from anthropology and ethnography to look at the patient-physician interaction, or tapping into bioengineering and design schools to look at the spaces where we interact. Perhaps, using population health sciences to look at influences on large populations of certain styles of physician-patient relationship. Or serving as a locale where postdocs and scholars who are interested in any aspect of this, can develop their craft – from studying empathy, compassion and caring to developing the next generation of pocket tools.

Are there any action items that you want your viewers to take?

Invent a metaphor that captures the work you do! If something could be named after you, what would it be? Go ahead, don’t feel shy!