A Note to Graduates

Dear Graduates:

It was with a heavy heart that commencement was canceled this year, for public health reasons. I know that this pained the administration a great deal, since it is one of the few opportunities where we get to celebrate you in a major way.

I am especially mindful that you were denied so many other occasions these days, too, such as Match Day, poster presentations, research celebrations, and more. It has been sad period of weeks that is supposed to be happy. I’m sorry, for you and for me, but especially for you.

But May 1st is a happy day.

This week, I am happy because of you. I want you to know that I am proud of you, each and every one of you. You really have done something great. You are special. You are entering a beautiful, if also frightening, profession, and I admire you.

You might recall that a few years ago at Freshmen Retreat, when you were MS2s, I shared a journal entry from one of our graduates, Genevieve Cruz, written when she was an MS3:

“I’ve seen pictures of miscarriages in sterile containers and babies that have died prematurely, but I’ve never seen a 19-week-old [fetus born to become a baby] . . . desperately trying to breathe without lungs. She was a perfectly formed human, only 6-inches long, silently gasping for breath . . . . We couldn’t do anything but project our love and sorrow onto this tiny human [being] and be her only moment of . . . contact in this life. She was too young to have eyes that open but her mouth and chest flailed and her heart pounded visibly through her ribs. The charge nurse look[ed] me in the eye and [said], “I need you to stay here with her; the parents don’t want to see her or hold her, so I need you to.” Her parents were in too much horror and shock and denial to fathom watching their . . . daughter die—so I was going to. The blur of doctors and nurses across the hall working on mom faded and I stopped listening to what they were whispering . . . . I held her in my hands as her heart kept right on frantically beating, and for a feeble fleeting moment [I] tried to bargain . . . my way through her surviving. If her heart is still beating, she must be strong . . . . But then my brain quickly conceded to . . . the science I had been taught. There was nothing functional in her lungs . . . . She continued gasping against a solid organ that would not open. Her heart kept beating, heaving through her ribs. I kept my eyes on her because I didn’t want to miss a single beat of her short life. Her fingers and toes were perfectly formed. . . . She had no fat or hair on her body and her skin felt left like putty . . . . The incubator kept us warm as the minutes kept ticking . . . . It felt like hours were passing, yet it would never be enough time to hold her. I could see the flutter of her heart slowing. She had given up . . . . My eyes stayed on her long after her heart stopped beating.”

My point in sharing Cruz’s entry was to indicate to the new students that they were going to go through so much these next four years, that they would bear witness to the mysteries of life and death. The same is true for you now, again, though in new ways. You have your own stories already, I know, and you will carry more.

I also want to lift up that during medical school you already have become a different person. I know you likely feel as though you are not ready. But you are ready. You are.

I am reminded of how Frederick Buechner, a Presbyterian minister, once described the doctrine of grace, which maybe also describes intern year. He said: “Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Do not be afraid!” Intern year will change you further, perhaps more dramatically than medical school. I’ve had a vague sense of this over the years from keeping in touch with former graduates. So, as strange as it sounds, you would do well to take some time to get to know yourself.

If I may offer a benediction on our time together as you prepare for internship:

Beautiful and terrible things will happen, but do not be afraid. Have courage. Hold on to what is good. Return no one evil for evil. Strengthen the faint-hearted, support the weak, help the suffering. Honor all people. And congratulations, again, on your accomplishments and journey.

Best wishes on your bright future, from all of us at the McGovern Center for Humanities and Ethics.

Nathan Carlin
Director of the Medical Humanities Scholarly Concentration