The Torch is Passed

Stan Gerson

Last Sunday, May 16, we celebrated a milestone as we watched 202 of our students graduate from the School of Medicine. One hundred forty-five of those graduating attended an in-person ceremony at Freiberger Field (only students and limited faculty members, no friends or family in attendance), and we live-streamed the ceremony to those students who were celebrating remotely. (It was the longest time I have been mask-less at a gathering in 14 months.)

The ceremony marked the beginning of their lives as physicians. 

The Class of 2021 experienced a markedly different fourth year from those who went before them. Most spent the year in clerkships, wearing masks and with heightened awareness; others attended classes remotely, learning with other faces on monitors. Some worked in our labs in shifts, masked and keeping the prescribed distance away from their colleagues. They cared for patients and volunteered in the community, helping get us through seasons that sometimes seemed endless—with action, empathy and grace. COVID-19 is imprinted in their training experience.

Perhaps the ritual is routine—except it is unique for each of us. Graduation also conferred substantial professional responsibility upon these students. In all programs, the Class of 2021 not only attained intellectual mastery of the curriculum, but internalized the core humanistic values of practicing medicine, possibly more so this year than ever, given heightened consciousness of our vulnerabilities, inequities in health care, social justice and the role of physicians to make lives easier for our patients. And yet this year’s class is up for the challenge—their smiles told me so.

None of them reached this point all by themselves. The love and support of families and friends sustained and nurtured them and will be essential as they engage in the profession. 

Our education leaders and astute and collaborative faculty including the physician educators from our affiliated hospitals prepared these graduates well, with preclinical training, clinical clerkships and individual projects. The heart of our school is our faculty, and in tandem with Cleveland’s world-class medical centers, they provided an outstanding patient-centered learning environment.

In his address to our students, Dr. Tom Mihaljevic, Cleveland Clinic president and CEO, said, “We see your compassion for patients and the community. It shows in how you treat others. You are motivated to make a difference—to innovate and find cures.”

Dr. Robert Haynie, requested by the Class of 2021 to be the keynote speaker, talked about the essence of a teaching hospital. It is not only the demanding work but the humility that comes with the profession when asking a patient, “How can I make this a better day for you?” 

Our newly minted graduates now begin the next step as they enter the society of healers of humankind—a tall order. As they begin the next phase, I asked them to take a moment each day to make a difference, to use the skills they learned at the School of Medicine, to THINK BIG and make their impact on our world. 

Congratulations and best wishes to the Class of 2021—a very special class, indeed. 

Watch video highlights of the Class of 2021 diploma ceremony.