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Commencement Milestone Musings

I’ve just returned from my fiftieth—yes, I said fiftieth—med school reunion, and I thought about a lot of milestones along the way. It wasn’t an Einstein reunion because, although I was accepted to Einstein, I chose not to matriculate here. At that time, in the 1950s, the college had not yet graduated its first class, and I didn’t want to take a chance.

Obviously, an unwarranted worry.

Ironically, I’ve spent most of the intervening years associated with Einstein in one way or another.

The big day for last year’s Albert Einstein College of Medicine grads!

An adage that appeals to me is: “You can’t get there from here, but you can get here from there.” That means it’s hard to start out on a course unless you have some idea of where you want to be at the end of the trip. While I had thought at graduation about a career similar to the one I have had, the very nature and substance of those career choices have changed dramatically over the years.

Infectious diseases, the field I chose after an epiphany involving a pneumonia patient in my medicine clerkship, has changed dramatically with the advent of AIDS and a transition to more outpatient therapy. Research—I am a card-carrying virologist—has become more difficult with the limitation of grant funding. Being the chair of a large department of medicine (a role I held for 20 years at Beth Israel) has untold challenges that involve doing more with less financial support.

These are all dreams I had at graduation, and they all came true, but with many unforecast changes. Yet I would not change a thing.

So, to the graduating class in your last hours of medical school. . . .Boards are over (for the time being) and the long-awaited graduation ceremony approaches. Most of you are preoccupied with finding new living quarters, arranging for movers and—most definitely, no matter how well you’ve done in med school—wondering if you’ll be able to hold your own among a new group of peers who “undoubtedly” know more than you do. They don’t! Einstein students have done exceptionally well wherever they have done their residencies.

Quell your anxieties for a moment, and pause to take stock of the many wonderful and challenging endeavors you’ve accomplished since arriving at Einstein. You have passed dozens of mind-opening and mind-dulling courses; you have made some of the best friends you will enjoy for the rest of your lives; and you have learned an incredible amount of actually useful medical and social information.

You’ve also learned to work with others and begun to learn how to put your patient responsibilities before your personal needs─at least some of the time.

During your residency you will learn far more about your field than you have before. Most of that learning will be experiential, but some must continue to be from didactic sources and reading. Perhaps more important, you will solidify your experience as a team member and reinforce the concept that the patient comes first.

But remember: This experience in med school is the key factor in allowing you to proceed with your career. You are now on the cusp of realizing that once-distant goal of becoming a physician.

It’s a milestone to be sure, and even for those of us who marched past that marker decades ago, it has signal importance.

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