“I’ve gotten kind of good at doing things at the last minute,” the young man said sheepishly as he pulled a crumpled piece of paper from inside his graduation gown and attempted to flatten it against the podium. He made a show of trying to smooth the page out, then leaned forward toward the microphone with a loud whisper. “I wrote this last night.”
Ashley chuckled along with lots of others in the stadium. The guy didn’t make it to valedictorian for the graduating class at the University of Michigan School of Medicine by doing things last minute. It was obvious that his speech was going to include a bit of humor. He cleared his throat and began to read from the crumpled paper.
“The most crucial piece of advice I can give you about working in a hospital is this: wear shoe covers!” More laughter along with a little bit of applause. “The hospital is a dangerous place for expensive shoes, and your mom and I are tired of buying you new shoes… love Dad.”
He looked up sheepishly, crumbled up the paper and shoved it in his pocket as the audience snickered.
“Oops, wrong speech.” Amid more laughter, the young man settled in at the podium and never did pull out another sheet of notes. The remainder of his speech consisted of a combination of carefully prepared details and off-the-cuff humor.
Ashley settled in next to Caleb’s parents to enjoy a portion of the graduation ceremony that she had feared would be dreadfully boring.
“Let me give you a little background about me,” the young doctor began. “I’ve been surrounded by medicine my whole life. Both of my parents were physicians; my mother was a psychiatrist—which explains a lot. When I told her that I wanted to go to medical school, she sat me down, gave me a big psychiatric hug, then proceeded to ground me for three days. It wasn’t until I finished medical school that I realized this was actually a 72-hour psychiatric evaluation and that she considered me a danger to others.”
After pausing to let the laughter die down, he turned and looked at the row of prestigious professors behind him, then turned back around and offered an apology to the faculty for what was to become the remainder of his speech.
“Join me if you will on a journey through medical school,” he invited. “The first two years of medical school are pretty easy until you realize that someday you’re going to have to study for, and pass, that behemoth exam--The National Boards.”
His voice dropped to a threatening whisper as he leaned close to the microphone. Waiting for the snickers to die down, he stepped back and looked out at the audience with a cocky grin.
“Then comes Third Year rotations. Let’s begin with the Surgical rotation, shall we? It’s like an intellectual boot camp listing names of famous, long-dead surgeons while holding a retractor during a five-hour operation.” More laughter.
“Internal Medicine,” he paused. “Six hours on medicine rounds as you endlessly discuss the finer aspects of gout.”
“Pediatrics.” The young man squished his face into a contorted position before continuing. “This seemingly complicated rotation can be reduced to a simple equation: Screaming baby, squared, plus irate parents, over airborne illness equals… alternative career plans.”
At this point Ashley was holding her stomach laughing as the guy used hand gestures to offer additional clarification for his math.
“During the Psychiatry rotation it takes a few weeks for you to realize that the babbling, incoherent patient hiding under the desk is your resident. And the only difference between you and your patients is that they are properly medicated!” He paused to let the laughter die.
“Obstetrics and Gynecology—” he made a face and leaned closer to the microphone. “Two words—shoe covers!”
Ashley wrinkled her nose, shook her head as she laughed along with Caleb’s mom. She didn’t even want to think about the implications of that one.
“Now, the Fourth Year is a lot better,” he went on. “They do this on purpose so that when you graduate you are happy. So then, when your friends who are not in the medical field—what few friends you have left—ask you ‘would you do it all over again?’ you can honestly say: absolutely not!!”
The audience chuckled and clapped a little and the rows of graduates nodded their heads knowingly and some even high-fived one another.
“Let me qualify that though,” the young doctor defended. “I wouldn’t do it twice, but I wouldn’t not do it once. Because the experiences I’ve had in medical school, and the way that I’ve grown as a person, and the human connections I’ve made with my patients, colleagues and mentors, I wouldn’t trade for anything in the world. As we go our separate ways tonight, realize that unless we care for ourselves and each other as professionals and as friends, we can’t hope to retain the humanity to give our patients the care they deserve. A little bit of empathy, and a little bit of humor can go a long way in our profession. And whatever you do… don’t forget the shoe covers!”
The audience once again broke into applause and laughter as he closed his speech. Ashley couldn’t help but feel good about the future of her college education as she shared in this moment with Caleb and his parents. She applauded and cheered along as she watched him walk up to accept his diploma.
Caleb stood patiently as his mentor placed the hood around his shoulders officially denoting him as being in that exclusive club of recently-graduated doctors of medicine.
Ashley was so proud of him as he smiled up in her direction. She wasn’t sure if he could pick her and his parents out of the huge crowd in the stadium, but she could see him and what she saw was a bright future.