Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese – Book Review

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Haile Selassie, Emperor...

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Haile Selassie, Emperor of Ethiopia, in his study at the palace CALL NUMBER: LC-USW33- 019078-C (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Verghese’s book Cutting for Stone was a feast for the mind at many levels, for me.  It took me down the memory lane, of growing up in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, born of immigrant parents like the main characters Shiva and Marion, twin brothers born from a union between Indian nun and an Indian born British surgeon.  I re-lived the years spent in Addis, the stories I heard growing up there, and the true home it is in my heart, through the names and descriptions, history and events related to the Emperor Haile Selassie; the coup, the Eritrean Freedom movement; through the events related to the city, the ululation when the Emperor drove through the city streets, the highjacking of Ethiopian Airlines plane; the locations, the Kerchele, the Merakto (where my father had his shop), Churchill Road (where we lived) Sodere and Woliso  (where we vacationed), Piasa, Cinema Adowa (where I saw my first movie in a theater), Bole Airport (the restaurant there served the best lasagna, and also surrounding regions and countries where my parents and other relatives lived and where we visited, Harrar, Djibouti, Aden, Nairobi, Mogadishu, Asmara.   Senses were stirred with the mention of buna coffee at buna-bet and of course Anjira and Wot, the best food I knew in the world.  What a feast!

English: Picture of a rectobladder neck fistula

English: Picture of a rectobladder neck fistula (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The book is a marvel in stirring the senses at other levels as well.  I learned more about medicine from reading this book then from attending tons of medical conferences.  I learned, not about the cognitive dry aspects of medicine but rich, vivid description about healthcare and surgical and non surgical treatments that interact with the human body in intended and unintended ways and the emotional impact of various treatments on the patients and their loved ones.  Where could I have ever learned about things like vasectomy, but from the vivid description here, narrated with bedside humor, by Ghosh.  Ghose is the most loving and insightful character, full of wise, simple quotes for living life.  Nor could one learn elsewhere in a manner one would never forget, about the barbaric custom of female genital cutting or about fistula, hole often caused from prolonged severe labor, frequently in child brides whose bodies are simply not developed enough for a passageway wide enough for birthing, or about lice fever, or about Hepatitis B.  But most interesting is the entire lesson one gets about liver disease and live organ liver transplant.  All students of medicine should be required to read this book.  It simply is not the same as reading this kind of information in medical books or on the internet.  Various diseases are described in vivid detail in this book, where the cognitive and theoretical aspects of diseases, disease progression, treatments, and medicine are discussed along with emotional aspects of patients’ experiences.  Clinicians’ relationship to the diseases with cut and dry (pun intended) medical treatment of diseases like aneurysms, cancers, and syphilis interjects with the turbulence and turmoil of patients’ lives, caused by the diseases.  

As if the book did not already deliver hundred times its value, the story is beautifully told.  It is full of wisdom and rich metaphors like “life, too is like that.  You live it forward, but understand it backward.  It is only when you stop and look to the rear that you see the corpse caught under your wheel” and about knowing when to accept the finality of the end “Thou shall not operate on the day of a patient’s death”.  Or, the one I relate to “geography is destiny”; I am always thankful for where I ended up – geographically speaking.  Here is another nice quote, “if you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans”; another funny one. “Flatus, Fluid, Feces, Foreign Body, and Fetus feel better out than in”.  There are scores of them and you have to read the book to truly get the richness of the language and to get the wisdom inherent in living a life where challenges are tackled head on.  But here is one more I can’t pass up without sharing “Wasn’t that the definition of home?  Not where you are from, but where you are wanted?”  With my book club choosing books like these, I feel I have arrived.




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