In a first-ever hybrid in-person/virtual commencement, the University of Vermont’s Larner College of Medicine celebrated its Class of 2021 M.D. graduates on Sunday, May 23, 2021 during a ceremony that took place both at UVM’s Patrick Gymnasium and via Zoom. Elizabeth Lynch, M.D.’21, delivered the student address. This blog post are her remarks in their entirety.
Medical school is a grueling and isolating experience at times, and it can take a mental and physical toll on students. Before I begin, I want to take a moment to remember a peer who is not here. Collins Oguejiofor was in the Class of 2022 and he died almost a year ago. Although he was not in our cohort, his magnanimous personality permeated our student body. Collins was a beautiful soul, and no measurement or epithet could ever encapsulate the value of his life, so I will not attempt to. The world will never be as magnificent without him.
In the shock afterwards, our classmate’s words stood out to me: “we cannot forget Collins, we cannot do him the disservice of letting his death become meaningless.” I would like to ask everyone to take a moment of silence to remember Collins.
There are so many stories I want to share today to remind you of how far we have come, and how much good you have done in your role as “mere” medical students. In the past year you have set up iPads so grandparents could meet their 6-week-old grandkids, or held hands with patients in an induced coma, fetched ice chips for patients who cannot eat, and listened to patient’s fears when they could not have family members visit them in the hospital. These acts of kindness probably did not make it into your evaluations, they did not earn you honors, and in all honesty, they probably delayed you writing your progress note. But those little moments of humanity, those genuine acts of compassion, are what will make you amazing doctors. It is my honor and privilege to say congratulations for arriving at today.
We did not walk this path alone, and I would be remiss to not point out the family members and chosen family members who supported us on this journey. Whether answering late night phone calls while we debated which specialty to choose, or making sure we got a daily hug during Step studying, or believing in us when our own self confidence was shattered, you, our guests of honor today, are as much a part of this accomplishment as we are. You gave us strength when we faltered and filled us with love when we needed it most.
To the faculty and staff of the Larner College of Medicine, it has been a journey of transitions. From a new active learning curriculum, to a new dean of the college of medicine, to an abrupt pivot to a remote teaching model, we know this has been a period of tumult and we appreciate your graciousness and unwavering commitment to our education. You embody Dean Page’s professionalism mission.
On August 7th, 2017 we arrived at our first Orientation Session in MedEd 200, uncomfortable in our business casual costumes, pretending we were ready for the challenge ahead of us. There was no way to know what was coming. Studying for tests that turned our brains to mush, arriving at the hospital for pre-rounding before the sun rose, and leaving the hospital long after the sun set, waking up in the middle of the night, panicked about whether we ordered the AM CBC for our patient in room 23. As if that were not enough of a challenge, a pandemic emerged that would upend our medical system and devastate our country and the world.
For me, starting medical school felt like entering a tunnel with walls made of mnemonics, sketchy microbiology videos, and endless attempts to memorize the sequence of Carbon transfer through the Krebs cycle. But outside that tunnel, the world was exposing its shadows. On August 12th, 2017, 6 days after we started medical school, a car intentionally drove into a protest crowd in Charlottesville, VA. A young woman protesting white nationalists died. Over the next four years, when we looked beyond the Larner College of Medicine walls, we saw innocent black men killed regularly by police, a young black EMT killed while sleeping in her bed, and countless transgender people who disappeared without any recognition.
In our state of constant exhaustion from testing, evaluations, and the unrelenting pressure to impress each other, it was sometimes easier to not look outside the tunnel, to bury our heads in Step 1 study aids instead of facing the reality of a vitriolic and violent America.
But we cannot hide from reality within the world of medicine. We all have seen racism in our clinical experiences already. I remember the day my patient was happy to talk to me, a white medical student, but openly refused care from my supervising attending because he was black. I did not know the right thing to say, so I stayed silent. I regret that inaction. I regret letting the fear of not saying the right thing outweigh my obligation to do the right thing.
Chadwick Boseman said “Fearlessness means taking the first step, even if you don’t know where it will take you. It means knowing that you reveal your character when you stand apart, more than when you stand with the crowd.”
In medical school, the fear of receiving a bad evaluation for any minor misstep can pressure us to stand with the crowd, to not stand apart, unless it is for knowing the right answer when the surgeon starts interrogating you in the operating room.
But I know you all. I have seen you be fearless despite the threat of negative repercussions. I have heard you correct senior faculty when they mispronounce a peer’s name. I have seen you advocate on behalf of your patients despite being the lowest person in the medical hierarchy, and many of you have worked tirelessly to improve the delivery of medical education to be more equitable, just, and diverse. As an M.D., your words and opinions will be respected and prioritized in conversations. Choose to be part of that dialogue, continue to speak up, do not hide in silence.
The coronavirus pandemic has uncovered the insidious racism in medicine, forced us to address the plight of child hunger, and to face the deep class divides in our country. In many ways, both our political system and our society need healing. Four years ago, when you took the oath to become a doctor you committed to: “remember that I remain a member of society, with special obligations to ALL my fellow human beings.” The healing our patients need goes beyond the clinical exam room or the emergency department, it demands that we engage with society’s injustice and medicine’s role in perpetuating an unequal world.
Today, we go from being medical students, to physicians. Your role is no longer to just observe, but to act. You now have the power to put in orders yourself, to provide direct patient care, to teach the next generation of medical students. In the words of our anatomy professor, Dr. Ellen Black: “Be Bold”. Be more than a member of the crowd, be someone whose character will be remembered. Be fearless.
As we begin the next chapter of our medical training, take courage from how far you have come and remember your own strength. Do not let the daunting future diminish your radiance. Each of us has traversed a unique, arduous path through medical school and you still arrived at today.
Take a moment to remember the person who inspired you to become a doctor. Maybe it was your childhood pediatrician, your older brother, or your school nurse. Today, you become that doctor, you are the inspiring person others will look up to. You manifested your dream, revel in that achievement.Congratulations doctors.