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Class of 2019 Encouraged to Embrace Community, Compassion

May 24, 2019
by Adrian Bonenberger

Led by Lisa Sawin, Yale’s Director of Digital Technologies and Accessibility, and Samara Fox, MD ’19, members of Yale School of Medicine’s newest graduating class stepped off from their appointed space on Cross Campus, took a right up Elm Street, then processed onto Old Campus along with the rest of Yale University’s graduates.

The experience was the culmination of years of research and studies. The 87 YSM graduates shared a sense of pride and accomplishment. Perhaps because of their smash-hit fourth-year-show, perhaps due to the class's relatively small size, 2019 was an unusually tight-knit group.

“I’m really proud of my classmates. They’re so talented, it’s remarkable,” said Nicholas Wilcox, MD ’19.

Following university commencement on Old Campus, the doctors-to-be processed to Amistad Park, where, to the tune of Star Wars’ “A New Hope” main theme (played by longtime YSM graduation processional veteran and bagpiper Glenn Pryor) they entered a large tent sheltering family, friends, and well-wishers from a strong sun, and took their seats.

Robert J. Alpern, MD, dean and Ensign Professor of Medicine, began graduation with a warm address. “You entered this place as students, but you will leave as physicians,” said Alpern. “People have many needs over their lives, but they realize, ultimately, that the most important is their health. As the ones responsible for that, you will be honored and cherished by your patients.”

Following Alpern’s remarks, Anusha Raja, MD ’19, MBA ’19, co-class president, delivered the invocation. She thanked family and friends of the Class of 2019 for attending, and expressed her hopes that her classmates would continue to be “morally diligent and innovative leaders.”

After a lighthearted introduction by Alpern, Vivek Murthy, MD ’03, MBA ’03, the former Surgeon General of the United States, delivered the commencement address.

Murthy noted that his own accomplishments were simultaneously rare and quintessentially American. “I should have been a farmer growing mangos, coconut, and rice, like my father and his father,” said Murthy. “But my father moved from India to the United States, and I grew up in Miami. ... Years later, when I was on a military base surrounded by generals and politicians, I was struck by how incredible it was that the son of a poor farmer could be asked to look after the health of a nation.”

Emphasizing both the role of family and the community in which one is embedded, Murthy posited that loneliness is among the most urgent problems of the day. He pointed out that social media gives the impression of connection, but does not have the same impact as physical presence—and that many stories of substance use and violence are tied directly to feelings of isolation. Murthy also said that physicians are particularly at risk for feelings of solitude.

“There are elements of our individualistic culture that tell us we’re weak or vulnerable if we depend on each other, or relationships,” said Murthy. “Of all the things I wish for you, the most important is to live a connected life.” An essential component to that connection, according to Murthy, is developing friendships, and in being friends. He said one of the best pieces of wisdom he had ever received was, “A friend is someone who reminds you who you are when you forget.”

In keeping with Murthy’s experience as a leader, he went beyond merely stating a wish, and offered a three-point plan to help listeners achieve greater connectivity in their lives. First, he recommended that people take five minutes out of each day to be present with individuals in their lives—if not in person, then by email, phone, or a short, honest text exchange. Second, he encouraged people to “reach for kindness” in their relationships, pointing out that kindness is natural and instinctive—and stands in opposition to the type of reactive violence one sees in such school shootings as Sandy Hook. Third, Murthy said that people need the courage to be themselves, and not to live the dreams of others, relating an anecdote from his residency where a colleague had worried that publishing was more important than being at a patient’s bedside.

“Compassion,” Murthy ultimately decided, though, “is greater than knowledge. The ability to give and receive love is our greatest gift.”

“I hope that you are always surrounded by people you love.”

Graduates appreciated Murthy’s address. “It resonated,” said Wilcox. “I was initially surprised about the focus on loneliness. It’s a huge problem, and something that often flies under the radar.” He echoed Murthy’s advice, saying: “The principles of kindness, being present, and courage are things we’re going to need in the next few years.”

“Yale has always emphasized those ideals—compassion, caring, humanism,” said Michael Boyle, MD ’19. “I’m grateful to a faculty that took us under their wing.”

Also, Alpern announced awards for faculty and house staff. Jordan Pober, MD, PhD, Bayer Professor of Translational Medicine and professor of immunology, pathology, and dermatology, was awarded the Charles W. Bohmfalk Prize for teaching in the basic sciences. The Charles W. Bohmfalk Prize for teaching in the clinical sciences went to Dana Dunne, MD, associate professor of medicine (infectious diseases).

The Leonard Tow Humanism in Medicine Award was given to Christine Ngaruiya, MD, MSc, DTMH, assistant professor of emergency medicine, and the Alvan R. Feinstein Award for outstanding teaching of clinical skills was awarded to Michael DiGiovanna, MD, PhD, associate professor of medicine (medical oncology). Howard Forman, MD, MBA, professor of radiology and biomedical imaging, received the Leah M. Lowenstein Award for excellence in the promotion of humane and egalitarian medical education. Gerard Kerins, MD, MPA, associate clinical professor of medicine (geriatric medicine), received the Francis Gilman Blake Award for outstanding teaching of the medical sciences. The recipient of this award is chosen by the graduating class.

The Betsy Winters House Staff Award was given to Todd Spock, MD, a fifth-year resident in otolaryngology and Emily Pinto Taylor, MD, a fourth-year resident in medicine/pediatrics. The recipients of this award are chosen by the graduating class, to honor the house staff members who have made the most significant contributions to the education of medical students.

Submitted by Robert Forman on May 24, 2019