A graduation speech to a residency class


I feet truly honored to have been asked to speak at your graduation and to have a chance to share on this day with all of you. We are experiencing a truly singular moment, and I imagine you are hoping that I might say something that would be comforting or inspiring, and I really can’t think what that could possibly be.

For the last half of your third year of residency, we have been consumed by a pandemic with no coherent leadership or plan for resolution.  The last few months have been marked for you by stretches of time on the frontlines in the hospital where you are consumed with incredible stress, fear, and exhaustion caring for critically ill patients with no clear algorithm for how to save their lives. This has been bookended with periods of guilt and helplessness with you feeling trapped on the sidelines sheltered in your homes facing hours and days of nothing specific to do, worrying about colleagues, loved ones, and your own lost opportunities to learn what you need to learn before becoming independent attendings.

In reflecting on this time, I am struck by this all-consuming sense of loss.  Loss of patients, loss of loved ones, loss of our lives as we knew it. Loss of security in our safety and of the plans for the future we had so carefully envisioned.  Together we feel like everything we thought we knew has been stripped away, and we are facing the abyss of the unknown.  We need the space to grieve all of that loss.  What does it mean to let go of everything we thought was secure without knowing what comes next – whether it will be better or worse?  Where will our place be in that world?  Will we ever return to “normal”?

As I was beginning to process these feelings for myself, I began to consider the cracks of our society laid bare by the pandemic: the disparities in our health care system, the atrocities of an economy so fragile that it could not withstand even two months of people staying home, the vulnerabilities of those with housing insecurity, crowded living situations, an overpopulated prison network.  I reflected on all the policies that had been slipped into our democracy to allow this to happen. And then, in the midst of all of that came the horrifying and gut-wrenching murder of Mr. George Floyd.

To be clear, we all know, what happened to Mr. Floyd was nothing new.  What happened to him had been happening over and over for decades in almost every community in every corner of this country.  But this time what we were witnessing happened in this almost perfect storm of a country full of people who had been trapped alone in their homes for over two months, many unemployed, many home from school, anxious and angry with nowhere to go and nothing to do.  And we now had front row seats to one of the most inhumane and grotesque of murders on a video that went on and on for 9 minutes listening to the cries of desperation not just from the victim but from the bystanders begging for it to stop.  And it was as if the universe was finally forcing us to really face who we are – with no option to look away, no option for our normally busy lives to pull our attention, no more excuses – this is what we are, what we have decided is ok for us to be.  Would we finally decide it was time to act? To quote JFK who, I believe, was paraphrasing Hillel the Elder:

“If not us, who?  If not now, when?”

And finally, for the first time in our lifetimes in any broad-reaching, significant and sustained way, we seem to have woken up. Every city and every town all across the country, people from all backgrounds in all stages of life joined together, and we marched.  And the world joined our cries, and together we stood up and said, “Enough.”

Around this time, I came across a beautiful essay written by the brilliant author Arundhati Roy who said this:

… in the midst of this terrible despair, it offers us a chance to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves. Nothing could be worse than a return to normality.

Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.

We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world.

It feels as if we can finally see a glimpse of what we might be able to leave behind as we journey through the portal.  We are having long-overdue conversations all over the country at every level in every organization about white supremacy, racism, police brutality.  But also about our dysfunctional and stratified health care system, our housing crisis, our failing economic structure.  Are we finally waking up to the brutal failings of our political infrastructure that has allowed the powerful few to create laws and policies that benefit their own wealth and greed, leaving the majority of the U.S. to struggle and fight over the scraps left behind?  Over centuries we have built a capitalized system that has consistently chosen wealth over humanity, do we finally have the opportunity to choose differently?

If each of us thinks about how we want to seize this moment and where we want to advocate, it is almost an overwhelming smorgasbord of options that could benefit from our efforts.

Have no doubt, as practicing physicians, every one of you carries enormous power. You are graduating into a world desperate for your voice and your expertise.  Almost everything that is wrong in the structure of our society ultimately leads back to impact the health of its citizens. The enormity of this responsibility can feel almost paralyzing at times.  But this is absolutely something every one of you has the talent and the skill to do.

And so I guess what I would say to you on this day of your graduation – allow for the space to grieve the loss.  Acknowledge the pain and the fear and make space for the times when you need to rest, to escape, and to find support.  But I would also encourage you to draw on your strength, alone and together to latch onto whatever piece of this world that inspires you the most to change and transform as we step through the portal and envision the world the way that it should be.

I will leave you with a final inspirational quote I am sure you have seen – it is a modern paraphrase of a statement attributed to an ancient rabbi in the Talmud: “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”

Deborah Edberg is a family physician.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com


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