Gold Humanism Honor Society Ceremony
By Rachel Conrad
March 13th, 2015
Editor’s Note: These speeches were given by fourth-year medical students at the Baylor College of Medicine Gold Humanism Honor Society Ceremony on March 11, 2015.
Each one of us is an artist, and each relationship that we build with a patient is our canvas. Some may paint with stickers and antibiotics, others with hugs and chemotherapy, and a few will use a saw and a fiberglass cast. We are slowly finding our brushes and honing our brushstrokes as we develop our own voice and style of doctoring.
The art of humanism is moving from making a diagnosis to understanding an illness and shifting from discussing a prognosis to co-creating a future.
The art of humanism is the difference between communication and connection, and the transformation from training as a physician to becoming a healer.
We are blessed with the greatest honor: to be invited into the most vulnerable moments of our patient’s lives – births, deaths, heartaches, joys and sorrows. Everyday, we must remember that this is a most extraordinary privilege as we seize each opportunity practice our art.
Congratulations to my colleagues in the class of 2015. I look forward to seeing you become artists of humanism by bringing healing to the sick, humanity to the suffering, and inspiration to the field of medicine.
In the course of medical school, we collect a lot of stories—hero stories, sad stories, weird cases in the ER. Friends and family all want to know what the craziest thing you’ve seen is. But the story I always find myself going back to is not the most gory or exciting or heroic. It was the first time I had a patient on the wards who I could sit down with get to know well for more than just a couple of days. We’ll call him Mr. Smith. He was an elderly African American man from one of the worst areas of Houston, whereas I am a half-Spanish Mormon girl from the Northwest. Had he not been my patient, we probably never would have met, and on the off chance that we might have passed on the street, we likely wouldn’t have had anything to say to each other. One or both of us maybe would have even been a little afraid of the other. But as my patient, he became my friend. While we treated him for congestive heart failure, I got to learn about his garden, his career, his travels, and the sacrifices he’d made for his family that landed him in a bad part of town despite a good military job. After he was discharged, I realized how lucky I was to be in the position, as a medical student, to get to know and learn from someone I otherwise would not have met. Our relationship showed me what a privilege it is to be in medicine, to talk to a variety of people and get out of our own little worlds. We tend to surround ourselves with others just like us, and our lives can become so homogenous that we miss out on learning from a different point of view. I think frequently of Max Ehrmann’s words in his poem Desiderata: “Listen to others, even the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story.” No one is equal in gifts, talents, or experience, but every person has equal value as a human being. Each patient has something to teach us, not just about medical conditions, but also the human condition, if we are humble and wise enough to listen.
-Melissa Baker Wallace
As I have thought about humanism, a story has come to mind and I hope you’ll indulge me in taking the opportunity to share my experience. Early in second year, my wife and I decided we wanted to grow our little family and have a baby. Words cannot describe the excitement we felt when we found out she was pregnant.
At 25 weeks, she had a routine growth ultrasound while I was on my medicine clerkship. As I walked home that day I received a text from her which read:
“They found something very wrong with our baby’s heart”
After a terrible wait, she called in tears. They found he had severe pulmonary stenosis with compensatory Right Ventricular Hypertrophy. We were told that given the severity of the defect, there was a high probability that at some point during pregnancy his heart would begin to fail.
The next few months were filled with a lot of anxiety and prayers. To our great relief, Kaden’s heart never went into failure and he underwent a successful balloon valvuloplasty soon after birth
A few months later, I started my Group A Selective in Pediatric Cardiothoracic surgery at TCH. I was excited to participate in the specialty that so closely had touched my life. Early in the morning, we would round on our little patient’s and speak to their parents.
As we spoke I remembered being hit by how familiar the parents felt. I recognized that eager gaze desperately holding back despair. I recognized their feigned confidence against an overwhelming helplessness. I recognized the repressed sorrow. I recognized … the unfailing trust in their doctor’s competence as one of the few things to cling to.
In their eyes, I saw myself. As a result, during those two weeks I checked on the families more often, I encouraged them more earnestly and I studied harder. I felt every setback and rejoiced in the victories. Simply, I was a better student doctor.
While I don’t think reliving painful experiences through our patients is required to develop a humanistic approach of medicine, I do believe that empathy is essential. We must foster in us the ability to let the suffering of others penetrate through our medical knowledge and the routine. To actively acknowledge that we are all brothers and sisters, and as equals, we experience happiness and suffering in the same ways. We therefore have a responsibility to help alleviate the pain we see in others. As we build, embark and continue our professional careers, I invite us to renew our commitment to professional excellence through empathy.
I remember being here as a first year and I never thought the day would come but here we are. 4th years here today my classmates are some of the most amazing people I’ve had the privilege of working with. And there is definitely at least 3 of you that would allow near my loved ones. I’m kidding I’m kidding it’s the opposite- 3 of you I’m steering clear of the rest are humbling beyond measure and I can’t wait to hear of amazing things that you will accomplish. We’ve been through a lot together- Medicine is a special place where we get to snapshots of peoples lives and jump in at life altering critical moments that for us is just a Tuesday. Just recently had a patient- Mr. Jones. He was in the ICU- a veteran who had seen a lot of action. He was 60s in the gulf war- in his 30s in the Vietnam war. Now His hearts failing quite badly now and options were getting slim. Time was definitely winding down for him. Best part was his chief and only concern was a refill on the Viagra- he had to have that. Gosh darn the diuretics he needed the real medicine- I said I’ll ask one of your 5 cardiologists and see but I don’t know Mr. Jones.
Mr. Jones was easy to love. He was funny and appreciative and going the extra step for him was never a problem. The difficult part comes with the challenging patients. These are the ones who are often unable to adhere to our instructions, who return to us frequently, who tax us with their demands and their needs, and don’t always show appreciation at times in the traditional ways. They challenge us sometimes- sometimes quite literally. Sometimes they run away from us- right outta the ER they run away from you and you have to try to catch them but don’t do that because I learned later that’s why we have security. But what we don’t realize because we’re caught trying to keep our own emotions in check is that the challenging patients are often the ones most in need of help and certainly of humanism. Being vigilant for those who are vulnerable in spite of or perhaps more because they are challenging is the price we pay to say we’re someone’s doctor- to say they should trust us with their most precious commodity.
To the first years the books are useful but the patients are priceless and stay with you long after anything you read. For the 4th years and everyone else for reference long term effects of Viagra on the heart seems to have a protective effect against heart failure that’s still being explored- I’d like to think Mr. Jones was onto something after all.
Thank you all so much and please go out and make it an amazing afternoon.