Two men and three women pose in academic regalia.

Commencement During Coronavirus

By Christie Moffatt and Elizabeth Mullen ~

Illustrated poster of a Red Cross nurse reads Graduate nurses, your country needs you.
Five Thousand by June
National Library of Medicine #101456454

Like many other events this year, graduation was special, due to circumstances defining how graduates are entering the workforce and to the virtual format of graduation events themselves.  For students in health-related fields, this time has extra significance as they respond to the challenge of a generation.

The National Library of Medicine holds many historical collections pertaining to medical education including commencement addresses delivered at schools across the country, including Sackler School of Medicine in New York, Louisiana State University Medical School, Saint Raphael’s Academy in Rhode Island, Meharry Medical Department of the Central Tennessee College, and Medical Department of Georgetown College, delivered at the Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC. Examples include the student diary of Ephraim Wynn who graduated with his M.D. degree from Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia, PA on March 9th 1872, and the speech  given June 9, 1988 by Surgeon General C. Everett Koop to the Harvard Medical School graduating class during the AIDS Epidemic.

Two men and three women pose in academic regalia.
Virginia Apgar at Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania Commencement, 1964
National Library of Medicine #101584647X35

As part of NLM’s ongoing initiative to collect and preserve for future research a wide variety of perspectives, reactions, and responses to the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, our archivists, historians, and librarians have included experiences of the recent graduation season, as reflected in the following commencement address given by Dr. Joseph J. Fins, Chief, Division of Medical Ethics and E. William Davis, Jr., M.D. Professor of Medical Ethics and Professor of Medicine, Weill Medical College of Cornell University at The Houston Methodist Hospital June 19, 2020.

Dr. Fins begins:

I know that none of you expected this would be how you would graduate. And you didn’t expect that all those years of residency, when you learned how to treat all sorts of conditions, would be dominated these past months by a single disease. Before January none of us had ever heard of COVID-19. And here we are, dominated by its presence, the staggering number of deaths, the economic toll on the nation, and its scientific mysteries. You may be disappointed that you are not having a proper graduation and having to listen to a virtual graduation speaker, but actually I want you all to feel a sense of privilege.

He speaks of the privilege in the midst of the tragedy, of witnessing medical history and being able to make a difference.  The privilege of mastery of the most up-to-date medical knowledge and the experience of putting them into practice in service to humanity. And the privilege of participating in the life cycle of medical education, learning from mentors and becoming a mentor in turn to the next generation.

Dr. Fins continues:

But the question remains what exactly will you pass on because of your COVID experience? Let me suggest four lessons that I think will be meaningful to your future students and mentees.

First, compassion matters. With social isolation, hospitalized patients were alone and without family. You became their family and held their hands on their way to recovery or the next world. And when you made those connections you learned the power of the doctor-patient relationship to heal. That’s a good lesson for a mentor to share.

Second, science and discovery matters. COVID-19 will not be the last novel pathogen you will encounter during your careers. For those of you will work in the clinic, model evidence-based practice. Don’t be afraid to acknowledge that you don’t know something. There is always more to learn. So, stay attuned to the science and model life-long learning. And for those of you who will be physician-scientists bring the next generation along. Share your delight in discovery and the special satisfaction that comes in the middle of the night when you have that epiphany and have figured something out.

Third, public health matters. Don’t forget that tried and true methods work. Following Dr. Fauci’s guidance we flattened the curve. Social distancing worked and is our best weapon against COVID-19 until we get a vaccine. And as importantly, public health surveillance is an important tool in identifying and mitigating emerging pathogens. We learned that we undervalued prevention to our collective peril. And what is true for infectious disease is also true for the nation’s epidemic of chronic disease.

Finally, remember that health care does not happen in a vacuum. We know that COVID-19 has taken a disproportionate toll on people of color, those who are economically disadvantaged, and those who lack access to primary care. The pandemic was the perfect storm of a virulent virus colliding with endemic disparities long entrenched in our society. So as you go forward remind your mentees that social determinants matter. It is not just the science but science in society that matters for human health and wellbeing. Perhaps that’s the most important lesson.

There is much for you to share. But if still doubt you’re ready for mentorship, just remember what you’ve done in these final days of your training. You showed up. Your cared. You held that hand, donned the PPE, administered convalescent serum, and advanced our knowledge. What you have learned in the crucible of COVID-19 is now ready to be passed on. These lessons will last a lifetime and span generations.

A bronze statue of two hands touching installed in a hospital building.
Compassion’s Touch at Houston Methodist Hospital, 2020
Courtesy Dr. Joseph J. Fins

And that all started here. Remember those first days at Houston Methodist, when you passed a bronze sculpture entitled “Compassion’s Touch” in which the out-stretched hand of a patient is met by those of a healer. Remember those hands, those healing hands, as you look down at your own and imagine the work of your hands going forward.

Today you continue in a great Houston Methodist tradition. Of course I speak of Dr. Michael DeBakey one of the greatest mentors in medical history. His legacy is now your future.

So, hone your skills, learn every day, care for those who turn to you and realize the debt you owe to those who brought you this far. You can’t pay them back. But you can pay it forward. So be like Dr. DeBakey. His hands healed countless patients and continue to point you in the right direction. Be a mentor. Let that be the work of your hands as you continue a great Houston Methodist tradition.

Congratulations on a job well done and my best wishes for the future.

Explore the NLM Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak web collection to view a growing archive of web and social media collected beginning January 30, 2020 when the World Health Organization declared the outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC).

An informal portrait of Christie Moffatt.Christie Moffatt is Manager of the Digital Manuscripts Program in the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine and Chair of NLM’s Web Collecting and Archiving Working Group.
Photo of Elizabeth Mullen outside in front of a building.Elizabeth A. Mullen is Manager of Web Development and Social Media in the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine.

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