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A dying patient inspired this doctor to follow his dream to become a writer

More than 30 years ago, Abraham Verghese took a chance on his dreams.
Jason Henry
More than 30 years ago, Abraham Verghese took a chance on his dreams.

This story is part of the My Unsung Hero series, from the Hidden Brain team, about people whose kindness left a lasting impression on someone else.


In 1985, physician Abraham Verghese was living and working in Johnson City, Tenn. He was a specialist in infectious diseases, and was well known for treating people living with AIDS. He became close to many of his patients, including a man named Frank.

"He was remarkably, I thought, brave about what he knew he was facing," Verghese recalled. "He understood the inevitability of what was coming. And rather than sinking into despair, he was an organizer, and he cared for his partner and was involved with civic events to the best that he could be."

Verghese remembers Frank reflecting on his life — the many places he had visited, the fascinating people he had met.

"And he said ... 'I feel sorry for the people who die, who, at whatever age, haven't had the chance to broaden their vision, follow their dreams the way I had.'"

For Verghese, it was a moment of clarity about his own dreams and aspirations.

"I just remember the words sort of piercing me," Verghese said. "This recognition that, you know, there's only one life."

After that, Verghese decided to take a chance on his ambition of becoming a novelist. He applied for and was accepted at the prestigious Iowa Writers' Workshop. And in 1992, he gave up his tenured position as a physician, cashed in his 401(k), and moved with his wife and young children to Iowa City.

Today, Verghese is a physician as well as the author of multiple books, including his latest, The Covenant Of Water.

"And I wouldn't have done it, but for Frank's encouragement," Verghese said.

My Unsung Hero is also a podcast — new episodes are released every Tuesday. To share the story of your unsung hero with the Hidden Brain team, record a voice memo on your phone and send it to myunsunghero@hiddenbrain.org.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tara Boyle is the supervising producer of NPR's Hidden Brain. In this role, Boyle oversees the production of both the Hidden Brain radio show and podcast, providing editorial guidance and support to host Shankar Vedantam and the shows' producers. Boyle also coordinates Shankar's Hidden Brain segments on Morning Edition and other NPR shows, and oversees collaborations with partners both internal and external to NPR. Previously, Boyle spent a decade at WAMU, the NPR station in Washington, D.C. She has reported for The Boston Globe, and began her career in public radio at WBUR in Boston.
Laura Kwerel
Autumn Barnes