Cutting for Stone (2009)
by Abraham Verghese
“But all the rich detail in the world is as nothing if you don’t have command of emotion and narrative. One could argue, given everything from ER to House, that medicine cannot help but be dramatic, but that isn’t necessarily true: Verghese’s achievement is to make the reader feel there really is something at stake – birth, love, death, war, loyalty. There’s no smug postmodern self-undermining (otherwise known as irony) here: the mythic arises seamlessly from the quotidian; telepathy or saintly intercessions are simply accepted – as they often are in Ethiopian life. You conserve pages because you don’t want it to end.
Edemariam, Aida. “Stitching up the surgeon’s life.” The Guardian. May 8, 2009.
“After eight months spent in the obscurity of our mother’s womb, my brother, Shiva, and I came into the world in the late afternoon of the twentieth of September in the year of grace 1954. We took our first breaths at an elevation of eight thousand feet in the thin air of Addis Ababa, capital city of Ethiopia. The miracle of our birth took place in Missing Hospital’s Operating Theater 3, the very room where our mother, Sister Mary Joseph Praise, spent most of her working hours, and in which she had been most fulfilled.
When our mother, a nun of the Diocesan Carmelite Order of Madras, unexpectedly went into labor that September morning, the big rain in Ethiopia had ended, its rattle on the corrugated tin roofs of Missing ceasing abruptly like a chatterbox cut off in midsentence. Over night, in that hushed silence, the meskel flowers bloomed, turning the hillsides of Addis Ababa into gold. In the meadows around Missing the sedge won its battle over mud, and a brilliant carpet now swept right up to the paved threshold of the hospital, holding forth the promise of something more substantial than cricket, croquet, or shuttlecock.
“On one occasion with a patient in grave peril, I begged my father to operate. He stood silent at the bedside, his fingers lingering on the patient’s pulse long after he had registered the heart rate, as if he needed the touch of skin, the thready signal in the radial artery to catalyze his decision. In his taut expression I saw complete concentration. I imagined I could see the cogs turning in his head; I imagined I saw the shimmer of tears in his eyes. With utmost care he weighed one option against another. At last, he shook his head, and turned away.
“I followed. “Dr. Stone,” I said, using his title though I longed to cry out, Father! “An operation is his only chance,” I said. In my heart I knew the chance was infinitesimally small, and the first whiff of anesthesia might end it all. My father put his hand on my shoulder. He spoke to me gently, as if to a junior colleague rather than his son. ‘Marion, remember the Eleventh Commandment,’ he said. ‘Thou shall not operate on the day of a patient’s death.'”
“I remember his words on full-moon nights in Addis Ababa when knives are flashing and rocks and bullets are flying, and when I feel as if I am standing in an abattoir and not in Operating Theater 3, my skin flecked with the grist and blood of strangers. I remember. But you don’t always know the answers before you operate. One operates in the now. Later, the retrospectoscope, that handy tool of the wags and pundits, the conveners of the farce we call M&M—morbidity and mortality conference—will pronounce your decision right or wrong. 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.”