Graduations and Cycles

by James Wagner, MD

Med Talks

I’ve seen 16 medical school graduations during my years at UT Southwestern. It struck me this year that what I get to observe as an Associate Dean for Student Affairs is much like the cycle of life. I’ve known many of these graduating students for more than four years. I’ve met them as young undergraduates aspiring to become physicians. I’ve seen them ecstatic with their acceptance into medical school. I’ve seen them consumed by the overwhelming volume of knowledge they must master. I’ve seen them evolve into physicians. 

The evolution never occurs as they expect. Idealistic, they start off loving the science of life and the service of mankind. They get distracted by grades. They lose balance by submerging themselves in the drowning volume of material to learn. They’re confused by the bad example many of us, their supposed role models, set. However, most of them end up right where they started: loving their knowledge of the human organism and using it to help people.

However, most irreversibly change. By the end of the four years, their idealism turns into seasoned wisdom. They learn their own limits, the limits of our knowledge, and the power of a kind word, gentle touch, and simply being there. They become accustomed to the miracle of birth, the inevitability of death, the exhilaration of cure, and the devastation of failure. The magnetic pole for their moral compass changes from within themselves to within the well-being of their patients.

This evolution into physicianship is beautiful to behold, yet it’s difficult for me. It’s difficult because just as they’re blossoming, they leave. I’m certain this is the pain proud parents feel as their children leave home. Some may stay for residency on our campus, and that’s nice. Some return for alumni reunions every five years, and that’s wonderful. From a selfish standpoint, I most enjoy when they come back to become faculty on our campus. 

Yet the nature of medical school is to create a systole of graduates into the world to enrich the body of society. Most never return, as they should not. Their mission is to reach into all corners of society and do the good of our profession. Each diastole brings a new class of young, idealistic, and completely new individuals who will mold the future of medicine into their own special destiny. Every student, every class, every year is different. But in many ways the evolution I get to see from my vantage point is the same: I see good people learning, maturing, and finding their place in the long line of physicians who work as healers, leaders, and educators. 

Graduations don’t get easier, yet each year I can’t imagine feeling more proud. I’m proud because I see the bright future promised by these physicians for the future of medicine—much like how the cycle of life allows older generations to rest assured that the future of mankind is in good hands.

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