Surgeon-scientist urges medical school graduates to advocate for equality in health care

The first African-American to graduate from the Stanford School of Medicine returned to help celebrate this year’s graduating class.

Members of the medical school's graduating class sit beneath a tent on the lawn next to the Li Ka Shing Center for Learning and Knowledge during the June 17 diploma ceremony.
Steve Fisch

Fifty-six years after giving a speech as the first African-American graduate of the Stanford School of Medicine, Augustus White III, MD, PhD, returned to the podium of his alma mater with gray hair and a strong message.

“I believe that health care should be an inalienable human right,” White said, addressing the School of Medicine’s graduating class of 2017 at the June 17 diploma ceremony. “We must work hard so that we come as close as possible to that ideal.”

Lloyd Minor MD, dean of the School of Medicine, introduced White, an orthopaedic surgeon who served for 13 years as chief of surgery at Harvard School of Medicine, as a “pioneering visionary” committed to the rights of underrepresented minorities in medicine.

“We as a nation can and must do better than our present state of politicized and dysfunctional health care,” White said.

He advocated for mending a health care system that he said still doesn’t provide equal health care for all. “'Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane,'” White said, quoting Martin Luther King Jr.

Caps, gowns and heat

The diploma ceremony was held on a hot afternoon under a giant tent on the lawn next to the Li Ka Shing Center for Learning and Knowledge. It was dedicated to the memory of Maria Birukova, a graduate student in the MD-PhD program who died in a rock-climbing accident in 2016. 

Augustus White urged the graduates to help mend the nation's health care system.
Steve Fisch

The audience was filled with proud mothers and fathers, fidgety children in fancy clothes, aunts and uncles and cousins and friends. With balloons and flowers, they cheered in support of the new class of graduates, 65 students earning a medical degree, 53 earning a PhD and 52 earning a master’s degree.

“Congratulations!” Minor said. “You made it!”

Prior to the ceremony, graduating students, dressed in caps and gowns, congregated inside the Li Ka Shing Center, preparing to walk on stage. They took photos and hugged one another, bidding goodbye as they prepared to begin the next stages of their lives.“It feels a bit surreal,” said Michelle Nguyen, MD, who already started the first few days of her residency in internal medicine at University of Pittsburgh and flew back for graduation. “I don’t feel like a real doctor yet. I’m still letting it sink in.”

Looking back, looking ahead

She and three of her closest friends in medical school huddled close together, laughing over memories of the camping trip they took during first-year orientation and already planning for future reunions as they head off to different cities and states.

The graduates walk from the Li Ka Shing Center to the diploma ceremony.
Steve Fisch

Graduate Tom Roberts, MD, MBA, lingered with his father, mother and two sisters just prior to the ceremony. He would have to dash off immediately after the ceremony to grab his second diploma at a cross-campus ceremony for Stanford MBA graduates.

“I was surprised he went into medicine,” said his dad, Ken Roberts, beaming with pride. “He always said ‘I’m not going into medicine,’” said his mother, Sheila Roberts. Tom said that Ken, a physician himself in the town of Mechanicsville, Virginia, where Tom grew up, set a good example for him.

The two student speakers — Zachary Zappala, who earned a PhD in genetics, and Monica Coughlan, who earned an MD — offered words of encouragement and congratulations to their fellow graduates. 

Coughlan, who is headed to UC-San Francisco for a residency in orthopaedic surgery, thanked her patients for teaching her so much, including humility.

“Our hands were the first to hold a newborn baby as we delivered them to their mother,” she said. “... We have easily worked with thousands of patients. Patients whose stories we will never forget.”

Zappala discussed his worries about starting a career as a scientist in the current political climate but reassured his classmates.

“We are living in an unpredictable political climate where support for scientific research has become disturbingly partisan,” he said. “In particular, our government seems to place little merit on scientific research as it proposed significant funding cuts of the National Institutes of Health, which has funded most of our education."

“It’s important for us to rebuild public trust in science,” he added. “You are well-equipped to tackle anything that comes your way, and I wish you all the best of luck.”

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