Memories of March 11. 1979

Three decades ago I did walk
How fast move the hands of the clock!
My life rearranged
As a man I was changed
And I remember the speaker’s fine talk.

Synopsis: I’m a Family Practitioner from Sioux City, Iowa. In 2010 I danced back from the brink of burnout, sold my share of a private practice, and, honoring a 1-year non-compete clause, went to have adventures in Alaska, Nebraska, Iowa, and New Zealand. I returned to take a part-time position with a Community Health Center, now down to 40 hours a week from 54. Right now I’m in Petersburg, Alaska, on a 1 month working vacation.

The anniversary of my medical school graduation arrived with snow and rain in southeast Alaska.

March 11, 1979 remains a date burned into my personal calendar. I had hitchiked back from Montana, my 4th move in 5 months. I stayed with friends in Saginaw and East Lansing the few days till graduation.

My father and brother flew out from Denver.

The graduation speaker did an effective job; I still remember what he said: There aren’t very many true emergencies. Write down what you need to know for each one on 3×5 cards and carry them around till memorized. Every morning, first thing, look in the mirror and say, “I don’t know.” Get good at it. Medicine is a jealous mistress with a cruel embrace.

He spoke for about 20 minutes. His exact words probably reside somewhere in the archives, but I carry the most important parts in my memory.

Michigan State at that time and to this day keeps the med students in East Lansing for the two preclinical years; after that the College of Human Medicine sends the students off to the five clinical campuses around the state. Those clinicals years constitute the crucible that makes a doctor. We saw people born and die; we delivered babies. We received praise and verbal abuse. We listened to attending physicians expound wisdom and acclaim outright lies. And for our last year, most of us travelled.

We lost track of each other. Some slowed their program from four to five years, some longer. Some dropped out. For the next three years we focused on our post graduate training, and for the next thirty years we focused on our careers.

But most of us walked across the stage that cold and snowy night in East Lansing.

I almost didn’t.

While I stood in line I started to panic. I had been a student for 24 years at that point, and without a school and a program, I had no identity. With only two classmates ahead of me, I turned to my one time roomate, who, fortunately, came right behind me alphabetically. “I can’t do this,” I said, “I’m a student. I don’t know how to be anything else.”

He said, “Be quiet. Turn around and graduate.” Which I did.

In that short walk across the stage I underwent a metamorphosis. I walked off the stage gripping a faux parchment (not the diploma; they had handed me a note that promised my diploma would be mailed to me), a changed man. The change, of course, had built over the three years of premed and the four years of medical school, but those few steps brought me past the tipping point.

Yes, I had lost an identity and in doing so acquired another.

My classmates and I milled around in euphoria and then we prepared to leave.

My father and brother and I went out to the Chinese restaurant afterwards. My fortune cookie said, “You will have great power over women. Use it wisely.”


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