Megan Wetzel, M.D.’16, Class Speaker for the University of Vermont College of Medicine Class of 2016, addressed the crowd gathered in Ira Allen Chapel for Commencement May 22, 2016. This blog post is her commencement address in its entirety.
An idiom I frequently heard used for motivation during my education was: “The light at the end of the tunnel.” Organic chemistry, medical school applications and interviews, and board exams – I diligently chased that flitting light in the distance. So, imagine my shock and horror when I realized that in medicine there is no real “ending.” Rather, one tunnel promptly leads into the next.
I am fairly confident that this epiphany came to me during my surgery rotation. Karl and I were tag teaming in the OR when an attending asked us to an identify an organ in the abdomen that he was pointing at. I kid you not – we named every organ except for the correct one until we were given the hint, “It holds food after you eat.” (It was the stomach…) Moments like those keep you humble, as well as serve as a reminder that there is always more to learn in this field. For the record, neither of us are going into surgery.
Therefore, today is a day of celebration.
Today marks the day where we stand in the light between two tunnels. The majority of us have spent the better part of a decade making the journey to this place. All of us will embark on our next journey tomorrow as newly minted Doctors of Medicine. As we stand here in the interim, I encourage all of us to look around at our peers, mentors, teachers, friends and family, and take in this moment with gratitude and reflection. Let us not forget the hard work, struggle, passion, and perseverance that brought us here.
Four years ago, we were thrown into this arena together. We all came with different narratives holding us up. Former research assistants, camp counselors, accomplished musicians, ski instructors, recently graduated, and a long list of other activities and careers representative of more than 100 lives lived with intention. And as our conversations transitioned from one-liners about who we are and where we came from to our true selves, wonderful things were revealed.
We bore witness to weddings and engagements, beginnings and endings of relationships, the pregnancies and birth of children, personal and familial illnesses, loss and grief, lots of laughter, and on a more mundane, daily occurrence – a shared experience of memorizing hundreds of PowerPoint slides over the course of a week.
We have survived everything life has thrown at us, despite the moments that have made us question ourselves. Like, what is an ossicle? What exactly does chloride do? Do I have what it takes to dedicate my life to the care and healing of strangers?
I cannot tell you what chloride does, but I can say that we all have what it takes to start our journey tomorrow and officially join the ranks of the men and women who have gone before us taking care of the sick and vulnerable. And since I know, without a doubt, that each of us will go on to cure and console in our own way, I don’t want to focus too long on the past experiences that have built our minds and hands to achieve what we have.
What I do want to share with you are the things that I wish were written on a Post-It note that is forever stuck to our White Coats and never out of sight:
Never lack imagination.
Our generation has been spoiled by the Internet, relative stability, and endless possibility. Just as quickly as our careers begin tomorrow, they can quickly come to an end with apathy, ambivalence, and complacency. Hold onto our bike trips across the country and hikes up foreign mountains, our midnight conversations, and the youthful, but not naïve belief that we can change the world. Always look for ways to reinvent the ordinary, boring, and least-efficient.
When the stakes are high, it’s easy to hide in a cloak of intellectualization and stoicism. I dare us all to face our careers with honesty and intimacy. While failures and mistakes undoubtedly await us, so do moments of grace, forgiveness, and candor.
Seek the best answer.
The learning curve for standardized tests was steep for me. It took a long time before I understood the concept and practice of choosing “the best answer.” Life is complex. At times, “the best answer” is hidden in gray areas and unknowns. And at other times, there is no right answer. However, it is the act of searching for the best answer that makes it a noble endeavor. During this search, our efforts will be lined with integrity. And it is this integrity that should guide our careers.
At times, the overwhelming experience of medical school can be likened to being on a sinking ship. In crisis, it is easiest to fall in line and be a follower. I have witnessed all of you rise to the occasion and be great despite uncertainty. I believe this comes from our unique experiences separate from medicine. Those resources that make us hardy and resilient can also be used to fuel the creativity our society needs in its physicians. There is a call for ingenious solutions. Drawing upon everything that makes us wholly different is what can propel the progress necessary for improved outcomes and real change in the lives of the people we serve.
And lastly, always humanize the patient.
Connection with others defines our existence. As physicians, many of our connections will challenge our fortitude, test the limits of our empathy, and override boundaries. One of the most remarkable transitions we made in the past few years was advancing from the classroom to the clinical setting. At times, the most helpful thing we could do as medical students was to engage in a conversation with our patients. As we learned the intimate details of their lives, we were given the gifts of laughter, joy, sadness, and insight. Our responsibilities and role in patient care will soon drastically change. I encourage all of us to continue the good fight to personalize each patient encounter.
The width of the lens with which we view the world has forever widened during the course of our medical education. Beyond the basic science and clinical pearls we have stowed away, I hope we can all summon memories of camaraderie and personal growth. May we create a place of respite forged by our own life lessons and never falter from what we know to be honest and good. Once the blur of the beginning of our careers has settled, I hope we are all able to remember the achievement that took place today.
The space between two eras with the backdrop of the Green Mountains has never seemed so bright.
Congratulations UVM College of Medicine Class of 2016.
View the UVM College of Medicine Commencement ceremony, including Megan Wetzel’s Commencement Address.