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A call to be not just doctors but healers

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2010 - Autumn


This year’s Commencement speaker urged graduates to remember their patients’ humanity.

As a hazy morning became a sunny afternoon on May 24, the 110 graduates of the Class of 2010 became doctors. But Commencement speaker Donald M. Berwick, M.D., invited them to an even higher calling. “Those who suffer need you to be something more than a doctor; they need you to be a healer,” he told the graduates.

Berwick was nominated in April by President Barack Obama to lead the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, a federal agency within the Department of Health and Human Services that plays a key role in implementing health care reform. (His nomination is awaiting action by the United States Senate, which must confirm the appointment.) He is chief executive officer of the Institute for Healthcare Improvement, professor of health policy and management at the Harvard School of Public Health, and senior scientist in the Department of Social Medicine and Health Inequities at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Berwick is also the father of Jessica Berwick, M.D. ’10.

He began his remarks by reminiscing about her birth. Holding his wife’s hand as Jessica was delivered “was one of the peak moments of my entire life,” he said, adding that only a few years earlier a father would not have been allowed to be present at a Caesarean section. “Then somebody changed the rule—somebody courageous, I suspect.”

Berwick then fast-forwarded in time to an e-mail he received in 2009 from Jocelyn Anne Gruzenski, the wife of a psychiatrist in northeastern Pennsylvania, lamenting that she could not spend more time with her husband in his final days because of hospital visiting restrictions. “I feel it was a very cruel thing that was done to us,” she wrote.

When the gatekeepers invoked hospital rules about visitors, William Gruzenski, M.D., would insist that “she’s not a visitor. She’s my wife.” Berwick argued that the Gruzenskis had made a home in each other, even if that home was a hospital room. The doctors and nurses, he said, were the real visitors in that situation.

“Society will let you build walls and let you write rules. And in that role, with that power, you will meet Dr. and Mrs. Gruzenski over and over again,” he said, urging the new graduates to respect the dignity and humanity of their patients.

This year’s Bohmfalk Prizes for excellence in teaching went to Peter A. Takizawa, Ph.D., assistant professor of cell biology, and Matthew R. Grossman, M.D., HS ’06, assistant professor of pediatrics. The Alvan R. Feinstein Award was presented to Cyrus R. Kapadia, M.D., professor of medicine (digestive diseases). The Leonard Tow Humanism in Medicine Award was given posthumously to the late Diana S. Beardsley, M.D., Ph.D., FW ’76, associate professor of pediatrics. Jessica L. Illuzzi, M.D., M.S., HS ’02, assistant professor of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive sciences, and Benjamin R. Doolittle, M.Div., M.D. ’97, HS ’02, assistant professor of medicine and of pediatrics, shared the Lowenstein Award. The class presented the Francis Gilman Blake Award to Aldo J. Peixoto, M.D., associate professor of medicine (nephrology). Loren Berman, M.D., a resident in surgery, won the Betsy Winters House Staff Award.

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