Before Anthony S. Fauci, MD, even spoke, he received a standing ovation.
For 55 seconds, cheers prevailed during the 2023 MD commencement ceremony on Monday, May 15, at Washington University in St. Louis. Graduates and their loved ones, along with faculty and staff, cheered on Fauci, who recently retired after 38 years as director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). He has also served as medical advisor to seven US presidents.
In his roles, Fauci has gained fame leading the nation’s responses to COVID-19, AIDS, and other deadly infectious diseases. At WashU, he received an honorary doctorate and served as an initiation to medicine speaker for 110 newly minted physicians, most of whom entered medical school shortly before SARS-CoV-2 turned the world upside down and disrupted their training. Fauci praised the students for their adaptability and resilience, which became evident as they persevered through the pandemic on their path to becoming doctors.
Shaking Faucis’ hand and sharing their joy at achieving such a major milestone has proven as exciting for many graduates as receiving their diplomas after four or more years of intensive learning and training.
Dr. Fauci is nothing short of a hero to me, said Cyrus Ghaznavi, MD, an aspiring infectious disease physician who will soon begin training in internal medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. Despite the political controversies, Dr. Fauci has shown dedication, compassion and honor in his advocacy of public health and patient care. He is in the business of following science and is a master at translating complex concepts to non-scientists.
The new doctor mulled the idea of starting a career in medicine shortly after Fauci retired from his. I can only hope to emulate him, Ghaznavi said.
Indeed, Fauci was the ultimate physician-scientist role model, a scientific lodestar in the midst of a three-year crisis filled with chaos and fear, said David H. Perlmutter, MD, executive vice chancellor for medical affairs , the George and Carol Bauer Dean of the School of Medicine and Spencer T. and Ann W. Olin Distinguished Professor.
You are now entering the profession into a world that poses all manner of threats to medicine and medical science, including a pervasive distrust of physicians, Perlmutter told the graduating class. Dr. Anthony Fauci exemplifies all of these values in a physician-scientist and the virtues that have helped improve health in our society.
You too will fight mistrust and alternative agendas by drawing on all those things you learned here in this place during the COVID storm by not only looking at the science, the evidence, and not just the relentless pursuit of improvement, but also the ability to extend understanding and compassion to each and every patient, added Perlmutter. Sometimes I think about the challenges facing medicine and medical science and feel concerned about our ability to reverse these troubling trends. But then I look at all of you. You completed this first stage of your medical education under conditions none of us could have foreseen, and you not only survived, but thrived.
In his talk, Fauci echoed the need for new clinicians to embrace science and beware of the insidious nature of antiscience, further cultivating adaptability, resilience, and humanity in patient care.
As we in the United States, as well as the global community, officially close the door on the emergency phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, I hope you appreciate that beyond the pain, suffering, and upheaval, the pandemic has offered you a once-in — lifelong learning opportunities from which to launch your medical career and witness a historic pandemic firsthand, Fauci said. It has also helped you realize your adaptability and resilience. These qualities have enabled you to move forward and emerge from this disruptive event to be here today to receive your hard earned medical degree and will undoubtedly serve you well in your future endeavors as a medical professional.
Fauci went on to outline key lessons learned from the pandemic.
Fight anti-science sentiments with facts, advocacy
The COVID-19 pandemic is a clear example of how misinformation and disinformation have become the enemy of public health, Fauci said. The promotion of lies, misinformation and false conspiracy theories has caused thousands of people to question the safety and efficacy of proven vaccines and treatments and, therefore, to suffer illnesses and deaths that could have been prevented had they had access to these interventions doctors, he said.
Don’t hesitate to push back these destructive forces, with civility but also with all the strength you can muster. As physicians with insights into evidence-based medicine, you do your best to listen to concerns and concerns and, in turn, communicate in simple, compassionate language to your patients, the media, and anyone else who will listen and explain what is known and what is not known. An increasingly important and vital part of your career will be helping people understand and follow the best scientific information available.
This episode of ‘Show Me the Science’ visits the 2023 Medical School Commencement Ceremony, with a talk by Dr. Anthony Fauci
Prepare for the unexpected
As the pandemic unfolded over months and then years, Fauci continued, the virus revealed multiple secrets, all of which took scientists by surprise.
Importantly, he explained, we learned that SARS-CoV-2, unlike most other respiratory viruses, is often transmitted by people who are infected but have no symptoms. Also, to further outwit us, the virus continually mutated to escape our immune defenses and shields, causing more transmissible variants to reappear and cause successive waves of infections, hospitalizations, and deaths.
Each new revelation not only humbled us, but also reminded us that as we face new challenges in life, any predictions we might make about what will happen next, or how a situation will evolve, must always be tentative. And accepting that reality also means accepting the critical importance of being open-minded and flexible in assessing a situation as new information unfolds.
Highlight humanity in patient care
Fauci told of Dr. Francis Peabody, a famous philanthropist who nearly a century ago told Harvard medical students: One of the essential qualities of the physician is concern for humanity, for the secret of patient care lies in caring of the patient.
Fauci continued: Simple but true words today as they were then. In our modern technological world, a CT scan doesn’t take care of your patient; robotics not taking care of your patient; AI does not take care of your patient. You and your humanity are the keys to optimal patient care. I tried to never forget it. I urge you to do the same.
He recognized the humanity in WashU medical students mobilization to help healthcare workers and the community during the pandemic.
Together with two other students, Ghaznavi initiated the medical schools’ COVID-19 response at the onset of the pandemic. The effort has resulted in the recruitment of more than 200 students who have collectively volunteered more than 10,000 hours. Among their efforts, the students created personal protective equipment and provided childcare for frontline workers. They have delivered meals to vulnerable populations during the lockdown, assisted local health agencies with contact tracing, and raised public awareness of COVID-19 safety measures. Many have also helped with vaccine outreach and administration.
I am deeply impressed by the extraordinary and impactful response your class has garnered at the university and community levels during the height of the pandemic, Fauci said. While the broad context of my medical school experience and yours share many basic commonalities, your journey has been truly exceptional.
You have persevered in your education despite the profound upheavals, constraints and losses caused by the historic COVID-19 pandemic, he said. Consciously or subconsciously, each of you will carry an imprint of this public health crisis that has intruded on your formal education as well as your personal life. I have enormous respect for your dedication which enabled you to successfully complete your medical education under these difficult circumstances.
See photos and other details of the Medical School commencement ceremonies
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