As another medical school class graduates in the continued aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, I look back on my own ceremony. I remember the half-empty auditorium, the rows of parents snapping photos on their phones, and the many bored participants counting down the minutes until they could go home and rest after a long four years.
Luckily, the speeches were short, and the pomp and circumstance were not as pompous as at other institutions. Perhaps that is because Buffalo, New York, is not a pompous town, and after all, our school is public. But something unique to our medical school stayed with me; after we collected our diplomas and walked across the stage, we had to sign a ledger.
It felt odd to suddenly add an MD to my name, and odder still to join the thousands of previous graduates stretching back until the 1800s, perhaps most now dead, who had signed this book before me.
I think about the book and the names sometimes while I am on call as a resident, roaming the empty halls of the hospital at night. One name, in particular, Adeline Fagan stands out, as someone whose exemplary devotion to the practice of medicine ultimately led to her untimely death. I never knew Adeline, she graduated a year after me, but that seems a small detail. She had already completed a successful year and a half as an OB-GYN at a Houston hospital when COVID-19 struck and changed everything. Soon she was on the front lines in the ED, specifically treating COVID-19 patients and sharing the burden of care with other overworked frontline workers.
Then she got sick herself, and our class watched from afar with updates on GoFundMe about how she was doing, and then when things worsened, whether she would make it off the ventilator.
And she did.
But merely a week later, she suffered a brain hemorrhage and subsequently died. I have had other friends, family, and many patients who have been affected by COVID-19.
Finally, with news that millions in this country are now vaccinated, there is hope on the horizon. And what will remain of the many doctors, nurses, and other frontline workers who gave everything, including their lives, to provide care to these patients? They, too, may be forgotten. This is a human tendency in the face of great tragedy.
But she signed the book, too. And in that way, her memory will be preserved. And it will be preserved in the parents whose children she delivered, in the mothers she counseled when they did not deliver their babies, in the scared patients with COVID facing death, and in her own case, when she ultimately succumbed too young to this awful tragedy. She signed the book, and she will be remembered.
I am heartened that another class is about to embark on this journey, that they too will sign the book and make that pledge to care for others and then walk down the dais and into the crowd, only vaguely aware of the great challenges to come.
Jonathan Peters is a neurology resident.
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