“His range of proficiency embodies the diversity of the humanities, from his efforts to emphasise empathy in medicine, to his imaginative renderings of the human drama,” a military aide to the US President said, reading from the citation.
“All of today’s honorees work in an age where the stories we tell and the technologies that we use to tell them are more diverse than ever before, and as diverse as the country that we love,” Obama said on the occasion.
Started in 1997, the National Humanities Medal “honours individuals or groups whose work has deepened the nation’s understanding of the human experience, broadened citizens’ engagement with history, literature, languages, philosophy, and other humanities subjects”.
Verghese is a critically acclaimed, best-selling author and a physician with an international reputation for his emphasis on empathy for patients in an era in which technology often overwhelms the human side of medicine, the Stanford University said in a statement. “I felt strongly then and now that what I was writing about, and my interest in the human experience of being ill or caring for the ill, was as much a part of medicine as knowledge of the function of the pancreas, for example,” Verghese, also a vice chair of Stanford’s Department of Medicine, said. He also directs the Stanford interdisciplinary center, Presence, which reflects these interests. Born in Addis Ababa in 1955, Verghese’s parents were recruited by Emperor Haile Selassie to teach in Ethiopia. He grew up near the capital and began his medical training there. When the emperor was deposed, Verghese briefly joined his parents who had moved to the United States because of the war, working as an orderly in a hospital before completing his medical education in India at Madras Medical College. After graduation, he left India for a medical residency in the US and like many other foreign medical graduates, he found only the less popular hospitals and communities open to him, an experience he described in one of his early New Yorker articles, The Cowpath to America. As the president honored 24 renowned individuals and institutions for their contributions to the nation, he made a couple of serious observations on how the medal recipients had used different mediums to shape Americans’ perceptions of each other. “Today’s honorees each possess a gift for this kind of creative empathy — a gift that allows us to exchange a sense of what’s most important and most profound in us, and to identify with our collective experience as Americans.” But for the most part, his comedic riff continued. The group included: “Fresh Air” host Terry Gross, composer Philip Glass; actors Morgan Freeman, Luis Valdez and Audra McDonald; and authors Sandra Cisneros, Rudolfo Anaya, Ron Chernow, James McBride, Louis Menand, Elaine Pagels, and Isabel Wilkerson.