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Emory School of Medicine graduates charged to ‘Make the lives of others better’

Glenn Memorial auditorium filled with families and friends on the afternoon of Friday, May 5, for the 2023 Doctor of Medicine commencement ceremony. The processional started with bagpipes, as the green School of Medicine banner was carefully put in its place of honor on the stage. Parents stood in the balcony to capture smartphone videos and photos of their graduates, waving furiously.

Medical faculty and the platform party filled the stage in full regalia. Interim Dean Carlos del Rio welcomed all to this “momentous day,” and the Venerable Priya Sraman, Buddhist chaplain of Emory’s Office of Spiritual and Religious Life, stepped forward to give the invocation. “Let us be grateful,” he said, calling for graduates to have strength, motivation and hope. “Be bold in living out your profession.”

Del Rio welcomed this year’s 128 graduates to the ranks of more than 6,000 Emory medical alumni spread throughout the world.

“I have a confession to make,” del Rio said. “Today is a special day for you, it is also a special day for me. Like you, today is the first time I am participating as interim dean in the School of Medicine graduation and, like you, this is also my last time, as for the next graduation in 2024 there will be another dean in place. Thus, I share with you a sense of excitement, accomplishment and a certain degree of nervousness and even fear. This is also a special year for me as I graduated from medical school 40 years ago.”

He offered graduates three pieces of advice as they start their lives as physicians:

  • “Learn to say, ‘I don’t know.’ Ignorance may not be bliss, but it’s the beginning of learning. Committing to a lifetime of learning means displaying not hiding your ignorance.”
  • “Put patients first, listen to them and work with them as partners. It is one of the maxims of medicine to ‘listen to the patient and he or she will tell you the diagnosis.’ Make decisions with your patients not for your patients. Evidence shows that genuine partnership with patients produces better outcomes.”
  • “Look after yourselves. Medicine is hard, both physically and mentally, and you will inevitably have highs and lows. Identify a trusted friend or colleague with whom you can share your good and bad days. Remember you are not alone and there is always someone who will be there for you.”

Del Rio then introduced graduation speaker, psychiatrist Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse at the National Institutes of Health for the past two decades.

“Dr. Volkow’s research has been instrumental in demonstrating that drug addiction is a brain disorder,” del Rio shared. “She has pioneered the use of brain imaging to investigate how substance use affects brain functions and her studies have helped us to understand how changes in the dopamine system affect the functions of brain regions involved in reward and self-control in addiction.”

In addition, Volkow is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the Association of American Physicians. She has been named one of the “Top 100 People Who Shape Our World” by Time magazine. 

The pandemic this class experienced during medical school, Volkow said, showed “the extraordinary power of human knowledge and scientific discoveries on addressing the most profound crisis … within one year, we had vaccines, and within two years, we had antiviral agents that decreased the severity of the disease.”

And yet, Volkow added, the pandemic also underscored how consequential the social determinants of health are, exposing certain populations and individuals to be at higher risk of exposure and death. “These are outcomes that could have been prevented,” she said, “had we had a different system where the social infrastructure protected them.”

The same social factors come into play in the worsening opioid epidemic, Volkow said.

“Today, as I speak with you, one person will die from an overdose every five minutes. And we can change that.” We have had not only an increase in “deaths of despair,” she said, but also an acceleration of tech, innovations, digital health, artificial intelligence and other advances.

“This is an incredible opportunity. You can make the lives of others better. This is to me at the essence of what it means to be human. To feel the pain of others and to use that emotion and our knowledge to help.” 

Faculty awards were presented after Volkow’s address:

  • The Exemplary Teacher of the Year award went to Ira Schwartz, associate professor of family and preventive medicine, dean of admissions and associate dean for medical education and student affairs at the School of Medicine and assistant professor of global health and behavioral sciences and health education at Rollins School of Public Health.
  • The Provost’s Distinguished Teaching Award for Excellence in Graduate and Professional Education went to Amanda Gillespie, associate professor of otolaryngology, director of speech pathology and co-director of the Emory Voice Center.
  • The Papageorge Teaching Award went to Hughes Evans, professor of pediatrics, who students said, “reminds us about the human aspects of providing medical care” and “praises curiosity and encourages us to follow where it leads.”

The Emory School of Medicine Corpus Cordis Aureum, or Golden Corps of the Heart, were recognized. This year’s group included alumni from the year 1973 and earlier.

After the hooding of the eight PhD recipients and recognition of dual degree recipients, the hooding of the MD recipients took place. The class then recited the Oath of Hippocrates, as is tradition.

The speaker of the Class of 2023, Arrix Ryce, told about his uncle, who despite having chronic renal disease lived “a life filled with people and hope . . . He showed me that a person needs more than medical science to face suffering. He motivated me to become a physician — a healer who combines science with compassion.”

“We must remember that medicine is both a science and an art. Diagnosing disease or managing illness is not enough,” Ryce continued. “We must challenge ourselves to be care partners who explore our patients’ stories and help them make positive memories.”

Watch the 2023 School of Medicine ceremony

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