Kinari Webb, M.D. ’02, recalled how in the days before her own commencement, one of her professors crossed the street to confront her about her choice of a seemingly undistinguished residency in family medicine.
“If you come to your senses,” the teacher said, “we would still like you to stay here in internal medicine.”
You may not have thought of a stethoscope as a tool to heal the earth, but it turns out it can be.
Webb turned down the offer, she told the Class of 2017 in her commencement address on May 22. Sticking with the dream that inspired her to attend medical school, Webb completed her residency and returned to Borneo, where as an undergraduate she had studied primates. She started a non-profit and opened a clinic in the rainforest to provide community members with high-quality care. By providing affordable care, she aimed to stop the illegal logging that the villagers depended on to pay medical bills.
A decade later, Webb’s project is a success. The villagers are healthier, infant mortality has plummeted, and the torrent of illegal logging has slowed to a trickle. Webb’s messages to graduates: don’t be afraid to take the road less traveled, and strive to address the underlying causes of illness, not just illness itself.
“I never did come to my senses,” said Webb, whose non-profit, Health In Harmony, is now seeking to take her Borneo model worldwide. “And In retrospect, I think I made the right decision, but it was hard to go against the grain. The expectation superhighway is hard to resist. This earth needs all of us to do what we are most passionate about.”
Webb’s speech was a highlight of the School of Medicine’s 2017 commencement ceremonies. Protected from a steady rain by a tent in Amistad Park, family and friends roared with delight as the 89 robed graduates marched to their seats. A kilted bagpiper led the procession, followed by a flag bearer carrying the school banner. Audience members raised cameras and cell phones to capture the moment, with one beaming woman climbing atop a chair to wave to a graduate.
“You enter today as students, but you leave as doctors,” Dean Robert J. Alpern, M.D., Ensign Professor of Medicine, told the graduates. “I have no doubt that in the future many will marvel at the accomplishments of the class of 2017.”
Those impressive accomplishments began with graduation. Nearly half the class—37 students—received Yale master’s degrees in subjects ranging from public health to business in addition to their medical degrees.
Those additional degrees meshed with the expanded mission that Webb envisioned for 21st century physicians in her speech. Nothing will threaten the health of their patients more than climate change, she told the graduates. To be effective, doctors must broaden their horizons to address the underlying social, economic, and environmental causes of ill health, she said. The benefits of saving the jungle in Borneo, she said, extend beyond its residents to the earth, as rainforests serve as the planet’s lungs.
When she started out, Webb said, her mission in Borneo seemed hopeless. She felt like “a tiny fish swimming against a tsunami.” Now, her project’s success has transformed her pessimism into optimism. “You may not have thought of a stethoscope as a tool to heal the earth, but it turns out it can be,” said Webb, who now divides her time between Indonesia and the United States. “Your medical skills have all kinds of unexpected powers. I want to argue that we actually all need to become planet doctors.”
The speeches done, graduates crossed the stage to receive their diplomas, each announced as “doctor” for the first time. The freshly minted physicians then recited the 2017 physician’s oath—which by Yale tradition is written in part by the class. Immediately afterwards, the sound of rain pitter-pattering on the roof filled the tent as the class observed another Yale tradition, a moment of silence during which graduates add their own thoughts to the oath.
At ceremony’s end, Alpern invited graduates and guests to lunch. “I also want to remind you, don’t let your diplomas get wet,” he quipped to laughter.
Teaching awards went to the following faculty this year: The Charles W. Bohmfalk Prize for teaching in the basic sciences went to Shanta E. Kapadia, M.B.B.S., lecturer in surgery (gross anatomy); the Charles W. Bohmfalk Prize for teaching in the clinical sciences went to Joseph Donroe, M.D., M.P.H., assistant professor of medicine (general medicine); the Leonard Tow Humanism in Medicine Award went to Joseph Brennan, M.D., associate professor of medicine (cardiology); the Alvan R. Feinstein Award for outstanding teaching of clinical skills went to Tamar Taddei, M.D., associate professor of medicine (digestive diseases); the Leah M. Lowenstein Award for excellence in the promotion of humane and egalitarian medical education went to Susan Kashaf, M.D., M.P.H., assistant professor of medicine (general medicine) and Alfred Lee, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor of medicine (hematology); the Francis Gilman Blake Award for outstanding teaching of the medical sciences was given to David Stitelman, M.D., assistant professor of surgery (pediatrics); and the Betsy Winters House Staff Award was given to James Healy, M.D., M.H.S., a fifth-year resident in surgery.
This article was submitted by John Curtis on June 1, 2017.