Atul Gawande has "happy" memories about Athens and said he feels lucky that he grew up here. But the best-selling author's return in 2011 was painful.
Gawande's father was dying of cancer.
It was a long and difficult time for the family but it resulted in a book that provides very personal insight on how medicine can do better in helping people as they are dying. "Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End" was published in October.
Gawande, 49, is a medical doctor of some renown. His father and mother were doctors, too.
"There was almost a presumption" that he would choose medicine as a career, said Gawande. "I grew up with my dad and mom getting patient calls… and I would go with them into the emergency room. I've been in and out of… O'Bleness Hospital all my life."
Gawande now lives in the Boston area where he works as a surgeon at Brigham and Women's Hospital and as a professor at Harvard University. He's also a writer and public-health researcher, with a wife and three children.
In his latest book, Gawande asserts that medicine can comfort and enhance our experience to the last breath, providing not only a good life but also a good end. It's backed up by considerable research as well as engrossing storytelling.
"The book includes the story of my dad," said Gawande. "His life, his care and then his death in Athens." Atmaram Gawande passed away Aug. 10, 2011. He was 76.
Forced to confront death on a personal level, Atul then went on to examine the issue from a professional point of view. He asked himself why is it so hard for doctors to talk about dying with their patients?
From the answers came "Being Mortal," which, according to a news release "tackles the hardest challenge of his profession: how medicine can not only improve life but also the process of its ending."
Atul Gawande was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., but moved to Athens in 1973. He was in the third grade and his sister, Meeta, was in first grade.
Atmaram and Sushila Gawande had been looking for a small town to raise a family, and Athens was trying to recruit doctors. Athens became "the obvious choice" for his parents, according to Gawande.
Gawande attended Morrison Elementary School and merrily remembers trying chewing tobacco behind the building, which then was located on Richland Avenue. He got sick and threw up.
And there was the high school angst of "the girls I asked out who never wanted to go out." A 1983 graduate, Gawande also laughed about "my nerdy failed days of trying to get a date for the junior prom."
But Athens High School sparked more sentimental memories, too. He played on a championship tennis team for coach David Roach and enjoyed science classes by teacher Tom Stork.
Growing up in Athens provided him with "a huge advantage," according to Gawande. As a college town in a rural area, the community featured a wide spectrum of kids to be friends, and he said they have helped him "stay grounded."
Some of those people are still here: "teachers, motorcycle salesmen, an artist." Others he has run into occasionally far afield: "I went to the White House to work and found that Chris Jennings, another Athens grad, was working on the health policy team… for (then-First Lady) Hillary Clinton.)"
More recently, Gawande has been collaborating with Chris's younger brother, Tom. Friends from high school, Tom Jennings and Gawande have done a television project that was partially recorded in Athens last summer.
The project – also titled "Being Mortal" – is for PBS's "Frontline" program. It explores the themes Gawande wrote about in his latest book, with the local portion focusing on what it was like in his father's last days.
The documentary "brings (Gawande's) personal journey – and the stories of his patients and their families – to life, and that challenges us all to reexamine how we think about death and dying," according to a news release. It's scheduled for broadcast on Feb. 10.
Jennings (who wrote for The Athens NEWS when he was attending OU) is the producer and director. He co-wrote the film with Gawande, who serves as a correspondent, a role he also played in "Dr. Hotspot," another "Frontline" film directed by Jennings.
Gawande visits Athens "at least a couple times a year" to spend time with his mother and to "hang out a little bit." She is retired and lives on Elmwood Place on the East Side.
Gawande said he's pleased with the success of the latest book, his fourth, which has been the No. 1 New York Times best seller for the last two weeks. "People (are) teaching from it and talking about it in churches and schools and at their dinner tables… and that is immensely gratifying."
No other books are planned at this point but he is working on more articles for The New Yorker magazine. "I've been writing about the things that are interesting to me… in medicine and in science" and "I'm lucky" that readers are interested, too, he said.