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Inaugural Competition for the Kalanithi Cup Builds Community

May 10, 2024
by Abigail Roth

What do Mario Kart, Cornhole, Trivia, Tug-of-War, Smash Brothers, and Dodgeball have in common? These activities comprised the first annual Yale School of Medicine (YSM) College Cup, held on May 4, 2024, in Café Med, Harkness Ballroom, and the Harkness Lawn. The prize? YSM College pride and possessing the coveted Kalanithi Cup—a specially-engraved Mory’s cup—for a year, until the 2025 competition.

YSM’s six student college representatives—August Allocco, Frankie Carr, Ashwin Chetty, Anita Jegarl, Allison Law, and Carlisle Topping—who conceived of and organized the College Cup, decided to name the actual cup for YSM alumnus Paul Kalanithi, MA, MPhil, MD ’07, who died in 2015 at age 37. They knew that Kalanithi is an important name to many students, due to the powerful words in his memoir, When Breath Becomes Air—which many students have read—which includes his attempts to find meaning in having a terminal illness.

The Saturday afternoon event was spirited, playful, and poignant. Many MD, MD-PhD, and PA students, ranging from first-year students to those about to graduate, were decked out in specially made t-shirts whose colors corresponded with the Red, Orange, Gold, Green, Blue, and Purple colleges. (A Purple College member brought her dog, who was sporting a purple bandana.) College heads, who also serve as academic advisors, were present — wearing their respective t-shirts and carrying colorful signs the students created — to cheer their teams on. A number of longitudinal coaches and college affiliates, similarly adorned in their College colors, joined in the camaraderie.

Vision for the colleges

“Seeing this is a dream come true,” said Jessica Illuzzi, MD, MS, deputy dean for education and Harold W. Jockers Professor of Medical Education, in opening remarks before the competition began. She described how the school’s vision when the colleges were conceived was to create a community where students from different degree programs and different years could come together, both within a college and across colleges. She referred to the large and growing number of alumni becoming college affiliates, wanting to be part of this mentoring network for students.

Illuzzi continued, “it couldn’t be more fitting that this event, with everyone coming together, honors Paul.” Illuzzi then shared poignant memories of Kalanithi and his classmate and eventual wife, Lucy Kalanithi, MD ’07, from when she was the Ob/Gyn associate clerkship director and they were students. Illuzzi said that in weekly didactic sessions, she remembers Paul’s smile, his sense of humor, and high level of engagement with her and with his peers. He had a way of outwardly conveying that he appreciated being there and learning with and from his classmates. She shared how an Ob/Gyn resident, who did not have the opportunity to work clinically with Paul, told Illuzzi that one day Paul just stopped her and “asked if I was ok, seeing I was stressed,” displaying his deep humanism.

Illuzzi then shared that she was Lucy’s thesis mentor, and so the two met for many hours over many months, during which Illuzzi often would hear about Paul from Lucy. Illuzzi recalled the pure joy Lucy had when she told Illuzzi that she and Paul had gotten engaged.

A really fun and funny person

Lucy, who was joined at the College Cup by her and Paul’s nine-year old daughter Cady, as well as Paul’s parents, cousin, and YSM friend Ryan Kaple ’08 MD, opened her remarks by saying, "As you can imagine, our family really relishes a chance to celebrate Paul... and it's really an honor." She shared that the two met in their first year of medical school and got married during their fourth year. After acknowledging that When Breath Becomes Air is “a serious book about serious topics,” she explained that Paul was “really fun and a funny person,” and that she wanted to share two stories that reflect this.

After recounting how he wore a fake, really big, lopsided mustache in his official medical school photo, she then shared a comical story of a notorious email he wrote in their first year of medical school. She explained that at the time there was an ongoing email debate between the administrator of Marigolds (the predecessor to Café Med), who wanted students to spend money on Marigolds’ food, and students wanting the school to get a microwave for food they brought from home. One student chimed in that his fiancée had a microwave in her lab that people could use. In response to the absurd debate, Paul wrote an over-the-top email to a wide distribution list, including several administrators, about microwaves, $300,000 bagels, and his proposal to have fiancées (rather than microwaves) in Marigolds, because he needed one.

Lucy then described how when the student organizers first reached out to her about wanting to honor Paul with the College Cup event, she thought it was such an honor and it made her so happy. When they wrote back explaining it would involve activities like Cornhole and Smash Brothers, she thought, “that’s perfect!” She expressed how she was glad her daughter Cady could be present for the College Cup and, in closing, said, "This is all just to say that as doctors and students, we're all complex, multifaceted, deep, striving people who also are really funny and joyful. And it's awesome to be here and celebrate that with you today."

Green College victory

Before launching into the games, which took place over several hours, a student college representative held up the shiny Kalanithi Cup, “to motivate” everyone. And who was most motivated to win? Green College!

Reflecting on the day, Topping, Orange College’s student representative, said it was “a fun day that showcased the spirit of students and faculty alike and a memorable start of a tradition in honor of Dr. Kalanithi.” Chetty, Red College’s student representative, echoed the positivity, “It was a blast to see MD and PA students from all years coming together and competing with a lot of passion. We even had some professors join the games! In my eyes, this was a great step forward to establishing a community-building tradition for this burgeoning college system.”

Submitted by Abigail Roth on May 09, 2024