Guest Blog: The Class of 2014 Commencement Speech

Chelsea Harris '14 at the UVM College of Medicine Commencement May 18, 2014.
Chelsea Harris ’14 at the UVM College of Medicine Commencement May 18, 2014.

It seems only natural, as we hover at the end of medical school and before the increasingly terrifying prospect of residency, to reflect on the path that lead us here. The stories behind our individual decisions to come to medical school are certainly varied: some of us strove to push the limits of human imagination with our debt load, one of us found that, while completely unexpected, the Guatemalan government wants you to actually have a degree before they let you singlehandedly run their health care system, and those of us from two-physician homes are still wholly unaware that other viable career options exist–sorry guys, you could have been i-bankers and finished ages ago.

Yet, regardless of the reason we decided to step on the path, we all came to medical school united by the goals that years of television had laid out for us: we had lofty aspirations that we would defend the health of children in the ER with George Clooney, be personally mentored by a gruff, cynical medicine doc who would call us by gender-opposite names, and not least, carelessly juggle the adoration of neurosurgeons, plastic surgeons, and improbably, a vet. Unfortunately, as the years passed by, and (no offense to Dr. Weimersheimer) George Clooney failed to materialize in the ED, all my of my mentors call me by my actual name, and vets seem to be in short supply, we have been forced to turn to the last goal medical dramas have imprinted on our psyches: simply, to save a life.

I am pleased to report, that in this regard, the people before you  have made real strides: they have performed CPR, intubated crashing patients, carefully listened to histories and plucked out the right information; they have retracted while other people performed life-saving operations, they have even selected the right antibiotics–I’m kidding of course about that last one: with pharmacology lectures always tucked in to the last hours before the exam, I don’t believe that any of these charlatans sitting here know how to use antibiotics properly. But for all the supposed heroics of medical interventions and the ideas we may harbor about our accomplishments, on the whole medical school has been much more an exercise in our own humble need for rescue, than any feats of strength we may have performed along the way.

We have been saved by friends and family who have indulged us in our delusion that sitting in a beautiful, temperature-controlled room, 100 feet from healthy delicious food, studying with some of the newest technology available, is truly the depths of human suffering. We have been saved by significant others who have been willing to uproot their lives and follow us across the country–in some cases multiple times–who tolerate social events where the topic of conversation spanned all the way from which book we were using to study, to which question bank we were using to study, to how tired we all were of studying. We have been saved by countless faces across the country who have offered us their spare rooms and couches, who picked us up and dropped us at airports, who made us food when the thought of one more residency social event was enough to incite tears. We have been saved by people who  adopted us into their families when UVM scattered us far from home, and we continue to be saved by the grace of individuals who accept too few phone calls, too little energy, and, only hypothetically of course, way too much laundry when we come home.

We have enjoyed the support of an academic family that is unrivaled. We have been reunited by PCR mentors who welcome us into their homes, who taught us to wake board, lent us canoes, and helped us navigate the dark and joyful times of medical school. We have been rescued by TAs who field the same questions over and over again, often directly in a row because we are not that great at listening. We have been inspired by professors who make the hopelessly complex manageable, or who, at the very least, bring chocolate. We have had our problems accommodated by Dr. Zehle and every tiny element of our fourth year organized by Emma Faustner, residency application goddess. We have been taken under the wings of countless residents who guide our shaky presentations, let us try, and sometimes, when no one is looking, let us go early.We have been mentored by doctors who have fostered our hopes, assuaged our fears, and lied about our virtues in written form when crafting our letters of recommendation.

But above all, we have been saved by each other. I can say without reservation, that my wonderful medical school experience has been defined by this amazing collection of individuals: people who buoy me on days when the doubt crowds in, when I’ve gotten every question wrong, forgotten my pager, and somehow managed to get lost. Over the past four years, I have been saved countlesss times by their hugs, their consummately inappropriate you-tube videos during lecture, and their thoughtful notes tucked into suitcases.

In fact, we are a group made whole by the summation of thousands of tiny kindnesses, by the phone calls the mornings of exams juuust in case, by the willing note posters (we salute you, Chris Duncan), those who stayed late in the anatomy lab just to clarifying a particularly confusing tangle of arteries. We are the collective grateful beneficiaries of the people who got to Florida first, who left us towels and spices or if you followed Pat, an enormous mess, by those lovely souls who drove back to the hospital to pick up whoever just got off, despite having arrived home themselves mere minutes before—by anyone who ever put gas in the car. We have been saved by an outpouring of encouragement from our classmates about the new hospitals where we will take root, by quiet emails that extoll the virtues of Pittsburgh, that tell us where to live and where to eat. We have been saved by the brave people who spoke about their struggles and misgivings, who paved the way for others to do the same. We have been saved by our fellows on the marathon team who give us the strength to keep running, those who join in even though their leg was finished, to help us up the hill.

So, as we sit here, surrounded by our peers, our champions and friends, I hope what shines through brightest is the support and love we have for each other, that today stands for group accomplishment as much as it does for individual. Because, there has been a lot written about when in this process medical students start losing their empathy; when they stop seeing patients and start seeing task lists. I’m not sure that I can answer that question, or even really if that occurs, but what I fear most is not that I lose my compassion for my patients–after all, they are conveniently labeled as needing help with reminders like hospital gowns and IV poles—what frightens me most is that I stop seeing my colleagues–these fantastic weirdos who have carried me through–as my friends.

We have all seen the sometimes fractious nature of hospital politics, the grumblings of one department that another didn’t do a proper exam, the frustration of service A that service B won’t take a patient, the universal hatred of a consult without a clear question. So, while some of this is reasonable, or perhaps unavoidable, my hope for us is that we continue to see not an adversary, but our classmates at the other end of the phone. That we remember that the ED resident who is making us see a consult we don’t want to is not some lazy idiot, but the loveable doofus who thanked us for being here and made us t-shirts, that the brusk surgeon who might be being rude to you, was your teammate during broomball and may be a competitive jerk but that she has some redeeming factors and she can’t help it, it’s just her nature.

In all, I hope that we take the kindness of the UVM community forward, that we continue to operate as part of a collective, to rely on the humor and compassion that we learned here, and every once in a while, when no one is looking, we save a med student and let them go home early.

Best of Luck Class of 2014!

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