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My Convocation Speech For The Graduating Class of Rutgers NJ Medical School

On Monday, May 16th, I was honored to be the Convocation Speaker for Rutgers New Jersey Medical School graduating class of 2016. Many of you have asked for a copy of my speech, so I wanted to share it with all of you. It was truly an amazing experience that I will never forget. I’d like to thank Rutgers New Jersey Medical School Dean Bob Johnson for inviting me. It was a very special day.

“It is a real privilege to share this day with each of you – Dean Johnson,  Members of Rutgers University and Board of Trustees, Fellow Honorees, Esteemed Faculty, Proud Parents, Families, Loved Ones, but especially, the 2016 graduating class of Rutgers–New Jersey Medical School.

And now to the Graduates:  You made it.  You did it.  You stuck with it, you persevered. Today is a day you will never forget.  You have earned the right to be here! Congrats!

The first thing I would like to say is thank you.  This is an extraordinary honor.  Delivering a convocation address is a great responsibility – I have lost a lot of sleep over standing here today.  What should I say, what if I say something wrong?

Then I thought about my own convocation.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t remember who he was and very little about what he said.   Suddenly, I felt really liberated for today and will proceed without any fear.  But if you remember anything about this speech – just remember that I said that too graduated from this great medical school.
I will be brief today as I have total respect for brevity and getting to the point. Plus, I know how anxious all of you must be to get your diplomas and get to that party.

When preparing my remarks for today, I asked some of my student mentees – ‘what would you want a speaker to tell you at convocation.’  Here’s what they said – ‘tell them a little about your own journey and then give them some tips for the next few years of training and beyond– so that they know that in the end – it’s all going to be okay.
So what happens after you graduate medical school and when you are finally start your training?  What tips do I have for success?  To give you my thoughts on that – I must first give you context for where my own journey has taken me.

I graduated this medical school at the age of 39.  When I received my degree, I walked up to the stage with my 10 year-old daughter, Kristina to get it.  After all, she had sat in many classes with me when I didn’t have a sitter.
While it’s been 20 years since I was on this stage – I will never forget the lessons I learned here.  And will always be grateful for the opportunity this medical school gave me.

You see this medical school has had a wonderful history since 1954 – a track record for attracting and recruiting non-traditional students.   I was as non-traditional as they come.

At the time that I came to medical school, I was selling real estate.  It was then that I met someone that asked me a question that would ultimately change my life.  She asked me, ‘is this what you wanted to be when you were growing up?’  ‘Not exactly.  ‘I always wanted to be a doctor,’ I said half-laughingly.  ‘Why didn’t you?, she asked.  ‘Because I didn’t have the money and I didn’t know how,’ I responded.

You see, I’m one of 5 children, born and raised in the Bronx to Puerto Rican parents who struggled to get by.  At the time that I was growing up only 60% of kids graduated high school.  I not only graduated high school but I attended a community college where I could study and work and help support my family.

When I graduated that community college, I went to work as a lab technician in a local hospital and because they reimbursed for tuition AND I loved science – I went back to night school.  It took me 8 years of night school to get my bachelor’s degree in biology.

So you see your question is a good one.  What I always dreamed of becoming didn’t seem possible for me so I just stopped dreaming.   And then she said something that would change my life.  She said, ‘if you dream that you can, then you will.  You just have to believe it.’  AND that was the statement that began a journey that brings me here today.

I took the Medical School entrance exam only once.  I applied to one medical school – this one.  2 months later, I received a phone call from Dean George Heinrich that I had been accepted to this medical school by early decision with a four year scholarship.  Who knew, that I had the potential, and who knew that with the right support – I would succeed.  This medical school did with programs like the Hispanic Center of Excellence that have existed since 1991 to mentor under-represented individuals like me.

Since its inception, this medical school has provided care to the poor and vulnerable. It has taught tolerance, diversity, and the belief that all human beings are created equal.  This education serves us all well at a time in our country when we will increasingly provide care for a diverse and global community.

I graduated at the top of my class, I’ve had the privilege of becoming the Chair of Medicine – the only Puerto Rican woman, Chair of Medicine in the continental US and most recently an Associate Chief Medical Officer – the position I hold today at Lehigh Valley Health Network.  None of that would have been possible without this medical school and my wonderful teachers – many of whom are still here.

So what tips do I have for success for the short and long-term.   Believe or not, time will go by fast.  You will look back like I’m doing today and say – where’ did the time go, how did I do that?

There are 3 things I believe will be really important for the next few years:
First, treat every person, every patient, and yourselves with dignity, respect, and kindness.  In a few months you will be licensed to practice medicine.  You will be licensed to care for someone’s life.  What you will be licensed to do is a privilege, a calling, not a job.  You will be faced with questions or problems you won’t know the answer to.  Admit what you don’t know and work hard to find the answers.  Patients won’t care about how much you know, but they’ll always remember how much you cared. Maya Angelou once said – people won’t remember what you said, but they’ll remember how you made them feel.    This will mean that you have to hone the art of listening to your patients without technology or a device in your hands – they will tell you what’s wrong with them and they’ll appreciate that you were present for them.

Secondly, you will undoubtedly make mistakes, admit them, and own them.  Saying I’m sorry is sometimes the best medicine.  During my first year after graduating residency, I began taking care of patients at a local health center on Broad Street in Newark.  After a long day of seeing patients, I walked into my last patient’s room – a patient with diabetes and foot neuropathy – and I immediately chastised her for wearing shoes that were obviously too tight and uncomfortable for her feet.

I proceeded to extoll the virtues of comfort and fit and began admonishing her about the adverse effects of diabetic neuropathy.  And then in a very low voice she said to me – Doc – I just bought these shoes.  They’re new.  You always take my shoes off and I wanted you to see something nice for a change.  I’ll never forget the moment when my doctoring got in the way of my empathy.

Learn from your mistakes and then move forward.  You will face adversity, that’s okay. From it, you will develop resiliency and become a better doctor for it.   And you will learn the value of humility.

Lastly, don’t forget to take care of yourselves and your family and friends. Remember to fill your cup so that you can fill the cup of others.  Do things that bring you joy, make you laugh, and help you recalibrate from the pressure of your profession.
This is one of the hardest things you will need to do but a very important one. Self-care is critical to wellness and happiness. Allow your families, friends, and loved ones to help you balance your lives and work. Ask them to call you out when you aren’t doing a good job at it. I work on this every day. My family will invariably tell me – Mom, stop checking emails. Be grateful for their support and when you are with them – Be present.

What about after your residency training is done?  What can I share with you that I believe will help you for the long run.  There are 3 things that I believe in.

First, be a lifelong learner.  I went back to school after I graduated my residency program to get a Master’s in Public Health and Health Policy and earlier this year I enrolled in some finance courses at Wharton.  I figured healthcare finance is a mess and I want to be part of the solution.  Don’t stop learning.  Be adaptable, Be flexible, and Be Curious.  You will have the privilege of practicing medicine at a time in healthcare where artificial intelligence may be your consulting partner, where robots may work alongside of you to provide better and safer care in hospitals, where we will remotely do surgical procedures and monitor any disease or condition from our patient’s homes or wherever they are, where we will be able to treat every patient with the precise medication that genetically targets their conditions, where we will cure cancer and other chronic illnesses that have plagued our society, and where what we can’t imagine as possible – will be possible.

Australian researchers have created a new BioPen, it’s a 3D printing device that allows surgeons to print human stem cells right into joints to create new cartilage, we are developing new materials including electronics that will go on or in the body to monitor health, and we are creating biomaterials that will replace human joints.  But that’s only the beginning:  Today, we are making carbon fiber composites to enable lighter-weight vehicles, we are creating solar panels capable of providing electricity to the entire world, and we are creating nanomaterials that will drive breakthroughs in energy storage and quantum computers.
So learn to love new ideas and experiments.  Value imagination.  J.K. Rowling once said, ‘imagination is the not only the unique human capacity to envision that which is not, and therefore the fountain of all invention and innovation, it is also the power that enables us to empathize with humans whose experience we have never shared.’ Everything was impossible until you did it.  Live in wonder.

Wonder why, and prize “Why not?” as your favorite question. Be insatiably curious, and question everything.  AND above all – whatever you do and whatever comes your way – practice the art of humanism for every person you touch.
Second, find a mentor.  Surround yourself with people who are smarter than you. Continually seek advice, be open to constructive criticism, and develop extreme self-awareness.   Seek to be continually inspired by something or someone.  If your work inspires you, you will never work a day in your life.

Lastly, pay it forward.  Be a mentor to someone else.  Take initiative, and volunteer.”  Honor service to others and share your life lessons – you never know whose heart you may touch.  Giving of your time is the most precious gift of all.  Doing something that is for someone else, for a greater good, that is selfless, and contributes to your community and our society is one of the secrets to life happiness.

You don’t have to travel the world or the nation to give back and give a hand to someone else who needs help.  You can give back wherever you are – you can give back right here at this medical school.
In closing, I hope that you will be guided by values that will shape the kind of human being your patients are hoping will provide their care.  You are a special class.  You have all the information that mankind has gathered in the palms of your hands – your phones.  Now use that information to make a better world than we have today.  I wish for you the courage to make the tough choices, the integrity to stand by them, and the grit and determination to face anything life throws your way.   Keep Dreaming.  Keep Believing.

Congratulations once again and enjoy the celebrations and good wishes you will receive as a graduate from the Rutgers–New Jersey Medical School.  You have earned these accolades and have a lot to be thankful for.  Best of Luck on your journeys.”