Each year, Commencement ceremonies held at our health colleges remind us of our raison d'être. Commencement is a time when we are prompted to think back to our roots — the pure motivations we had for choosing the profession we did. There is the warmth and justifiable pride felt by our faculty in having molded these new physicians, dentists, pharmacists, veterinarians, nurses and other health professionals. And there is the unadulterated joy felt by the graduates and their families. It all makes for a memorable time.
Memorable as Commencement may be as a milestone, the well-chosen words of our Commencement speakers tend to disappear into the rarified air of the Curtis M. Phillips Performing Arts Center, soon to be forgotten. This special edition of OTSP changes that a little bit: At the College of Medicine Commencement, graduating student Cindy Medina Pabon gave a speech that deserves to be preserved in print. For faculty, it will take you back to your roots; for students, it will inspire you and remind you of why you started on your path as a health care professional; and for our staff, it will give you pride as satisfaction for your role in educating the next generation of health care professionals who are entering the field for all the right reasons.
Student Commencement Speech
University of Florida College of Medicine
May 19, 2018
Cindy Medina Pabon, M.D.
Over the past couple of months, I have been reflecting on our role as physicians. In the novel, “Being Mortal,” Dr. Atul Gawande introduces the idea that doctors are at war with death. He describes death as our clear enemy with superpowers that we simply cannot defeat. Generation after generation, the medical field continues to expand research and develop new treatment options in hopes that death will surrender one day.
Yet, after caring for patients during medical school, I have found that there is much more to one’s quality of life than mere survival. There is an innate desire we all have to lead a meaningful life. As providers, we get to see how, in difficult times, our patients’ draw happiness from the love in their relationships, the pride in their accomplishments and the strength in their battles.
We are also witness to the untold hardships that challenge the lives of our patients. In medical school, I have been introduced to the invisibility of the undocumented immigrant, the loss of control experienced by an addict, the painful struggle of hiding one’s true gender identity and the sense of defeat felt by a veteran forgotten by society. I’d like to share one of these stories with you.
About three years ago, I was seeing a Spanish-speaking patient at the Equal Access Clinic for her diabetes. Her significant other was present during the visit and insisted on translating and guiding the conversation despite my attempts to lead the clinic visit in Spanish. He was also uneasy when I tried to examine her and insisted that there was no need since she was healthy and only needed a medication refill. Something felt odd about their dynamic, and as I presented her case to the attending physician that evening, Dr.Grigg, he agreed that we should speak to our patient alone. As we returned to the room, we kindly asked her partner to leave. He was furious and intent on staying, yet Dr. Grigg’s calm demeanor somehow swayed him to give us some privacy. I watched as Dr. Grigg pulled up his chair towards our patient and stretched his hand out to hers. “What’s been going on?” he asked.
She was shaking in fear as she recounted the ways her partner verbally and physically abused her. She lived in constant worry of him outing her undocumented status. With tears streaming down her face, the woman revealed an array of bruises hidden along her body; some old, some new. She lived her days quietly, wanting to go unnoticed by society, all the while finding herself deeper in this dangerous relationship. Dr. Grigg nodded as he listened and gave her his undivided attention. Meanwhile, I watched as our patient, who had previously felt rejected by society, reclaimed her sense of self-worth through sharing her story. Undocumented victims of abuse and domestic violence are often isolated and silenced by the fear of deportation. Sadly, it was a story Dr. Grigg knew too well, and one that I would continue to see in the following years.
I have come to realize that the practice of medicine is a deeply personal and human experience. Medicine provides an intersection where people from different backgrounds meet and disclose their secrets, fears and dreams in search for a better future and health. How humbling it feels to be the one to whom patients look for help.
So yes, Dr. Gawande is right — physicians are at war with death. But I would like to amend his commentary on the role of a physician. I can no longer think of myself as just a member of the infantry shielding my patients from illness and death. I believe that I can do better than that; we all can. I propose that we are also at war with the injustices and hardships that stand in the way of our patients’ well-being and access to care.
As physicians, we have an opportunity to shape our institutions, our culture and our conversations in ways that can transform the possibilities for our patients. As leaders, our actions and opinions can transcend generations and give a voice to those who feel overlooked or neglected by the system. We can refashion the way society views our patients and help preserve dignity and purpose in their lives. Class of 2018, I believe we are perfectly suited for this role.
When I first met all of you on orientation day, I remember feeling so impressed. We have a diversity of backgrounds with degrees including Ph.D.s, Pharm.D.s, and D.M.D.s. We are a group with flourishing personalities, kind hearts and families, and a dedication to serving communities in need. It has been such an honor to be your classmate and see the world from your perspective. As we venture out on our separate paths, I hope that you will all remember the experiences we had at UF. This includes the challenges we faced while in school as well as the insight we gained from our patients and friends. May we always remember to take the time to sit, listen and make our patients feel heard. Let us continue to be kind, conscientious and compassionate to one another in the years to come. Let us rejoice in each other’s accomplishments and help change the culture and future of health care as a whole. Because today we are becoming more than an M.D., we are becoming advocates for our patients, a support system for one another and leaders within our communities. Make it count.
The Power of Together,
David S. Guzick, M.D., Ph.D.
Senior Vice President for Health Affairs, UF
President, UF Health