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We Choose

October 22, 2020

To the YSM and Alumni Communities:

The fall is upon us and in less than two weeks the general election. In a time of uncertainty, anticipation of various potential outcomes can create anxiety. Some may feel that they do not have control over their future.

I would like to propose that we, as members of the Yale School of Medicine, can exert control over our future.

As private citizens, we should exercise our right to vote. We can encourage others to vote. We may wish to exercise our rights to freedom of expression and to peaceful assembly. As physicians, scientists, health care workers, and trainees, I ask that we do so in a way that is mindful of our commitment to our patients, colleagues, and the health of our community. We must promote mask wearing and social distancing measures even while exercising our rights.

We must also commit to demonstrating the behaviors we expect of others, and listen and treat each other with respect. Our responsibilities as physicians, aspiring clinicians, and members of the academy require us to model this behavior. Many of us have taken an oath to treat our patients with respect. The World Medical Association Declaration of Geneva reads “I will not permit considerations of age, disease or disability, creed, ethnic origin, gender, nationality, political affiliation, race, sexual orientation, social standing or any other factor to intervene between my duty and my patient … .” As professional students, our MD and PA learners have likewise committed to professionalism during their white coat ceremonies.

Times like this remind us that we may be required to care for patients who not only disagree with us, but whose ideas we find reprehensible. In 2018, after Robert Bowers opened fire and killed eight men and three women during a Shabbat service at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Ari Mahler cared for Bowers as his nurse in the emergency department of Alleghany General Hospital. Bowers was spewing anti-Semitic hatred when he arrived in the emergency department. Mahler chose not to reveal that he was Jewish but to treat his patient with “empathy and compassion,” because he felt this was the best way to honor the victims.

Nurse Mahler chose to assert control by rising above the hatred. Not everyone has the autonomy to make that choice. For this reason, I ask that we also commit to keep each other safe. Our duty to care for patients does not require that we tolerate mistreatment of students or the members of the care team. In such situations, it is important to call out offensive behavior even as we treat our patients with compassion.

I also ask that we recognize differences of opinion among our colleagues, mentors, and trainees. Darin Latimore, deputy dean and chief diversity officer, recently noted “During these times, it is important that we remember that just because someone has a different political view, that alone does not make the individual bad or evil. In fact, this is the very moment that we should strive even harder to see the other person’s humanity.”

We at Yale School of Medicine can shape our future, one-by-one, together. As anthropologist Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”


Nancy J. Brown, MD
Jean and David W. Wallace Dean of Medicine
C.N.H. Long Professor of Internal Medicine