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Yale PA Online Class of 2024 Gathers for Graduation

May 15, 2024
by Abigail Roth

On May 10, Woolsey Hall was filled with family and friends celebrating the graduation of the 73 members of Yale School of Medicine’s (YSM) Physician Assistant (PA) Online Class of 2024. Throughout the ceremony, there was frequent loud applause and cheers for the graduates, who came from 28 different states.

Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Interim Program Director of the Yale Psychiatry Residency Program Richard Belitsky, MD — who as YSM’s deputy dean for education (2006 - 2020) played a vital role launching and supporting the PA Online Program — delivered the commencement address. He opened by saying he wanted to talk to the students about feelings, joking, “you invited a psychiatrist to be your speaker, what do you expect?” He told the students he knew they would take good care of everything going on around them, like caring for patients and being outstanding team members. But he also noted the intense emotions of working as a health professional, such as being exposed to the frailties and vulnerabilities of the human body and the limitations of medicine, telling the students, “Let’s make sure you also take care of what’s going on inside you.”

He shared that when he graduated from medical school, he was excited and relieved, but also scared, filled with self-doubt and insecurity about if he had learned enough and “had what it takes to be a doctor.”

Embrace your feelings

Belitsky then told a story from his internship. On a pediatric rotation he was responsible for changing the bandages of a young boy who had been badly burned. The boy was crying as Belitsky tried to carefully remove the bandages, because it was painful. The boy then turned to Belitsky and asked, “aren’t you my doctor?” When Belitsky said he was, the boy responded, “If you are my doctor, why are you hurting me so much?”

Belitsky shared how this crushed him, raising his worst fears that he did not have what it takes to be a doctor and causing him to sob. The pediatric attending physician, in an attempt to be helpful, advised him, “Richard, if you are going to be a doctor, you can’t let it get to you like this.”

Belitsky told the students he wished the well-meaning doctor had said, “You’re a doctor, of course you feel this way. We all feel this way sometimes.” (Pulling in a movie reference, Belitsky also disagreed with Tom Hanks’ famous line as the manager in A League of Their Own that “there’s no crying in baseball.”)

Belitsky emphasized to the graduating students that they will of course experience a range of different and at times intense emotions, and this is all part of being a PA. He encouraged them to embrace their feelings with grace, understanding, and curiosity as they go through the adventure of medicine. In doing so, he shared, they will find the meaning and humanity that brought them to this work.

He also encouraged them to share their stories with others, including their emotions, as that will help them connect with those around them, get the support they need, and open the door for others to share their stories as well.

Providing much-needed care

In her remarks, Deputy Dean for Education and Harold W. Jockers Professor of Medical Education Jessica Illuzzi, MD, MS, told the students, “You all should be very proud of your accomplishments. You have been part of an innovative program that has trained you to be outstanding patient-centered clinicians, who are experienced practicing as part of a health care team.” She emphasized they had worked “extraordinarily hard” during the 28 months of their program, including engaging in 120 or more hours of clinical care during their didactic year, followed by 15 months of intensive clinical rotations.

Illuzzi told the graduates that their class reflects YSM’s “PA programs’ commitment to promote diversity and an inclusive environment by continuously engaging in education, reflection, and advocacy for the benefit of the communities in which we learn, work, and serve.” She noted that 42% of the class are the first in their family to attend college, 23% identify as underrepresented in medicine, and 25% live in medically-underserved communities. “The breadth of your lived experience has benefited your class and will benefit your patients,” Illuzzi said.

Looking forward, Illuzzi told the graduates, “Wherever your career leads you, whether your home community or a new location, whether practicing primary care, as many of you will do, or in a specialty practice, you will provide much-needed care to your future patients.”

Genuine, kind, passionate, brilliant, and loving

In the student address, Meghann McAndrew, MMSc ’24, also focused on her classmates’ hard work, as well as the positive impact they would have on their communities. “My little hometown of 5,000 in Wyoming will now have a provider who is not going to move or leave, but will offer superior care to the community. Without this program, I would not have that reality. And I know I am not even close to the only one.”

Praising her classmates, she continued, “for those of you who are worried about the future of health care, I am not, for I have linked arms with 73 people who are unbreakable. The most genuine, kind, passionate, brilliant, and loving humans I have ever met. If you have goose bumps, you should, because these are the types of providers who are going to close the gaps of underserved communities in our nation.”

Reflecting the bond among the members of the class, McAndrew told the audience, “All you need is one person in your life who says you’ve got this, I believe in you, and you will find the courage and energy to do the things that you never thought were possible. In this class we didn’t find just one person, we found 73.”

Submitted by Abigail Roth on May 15, 2024