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New medical students learn their first lesson: Treasure human connections

 Abraham Verghese’s story of the emergence of AIDS in Johnson City, Tenn., as told in his book, My Own Country: A Doctor’s Story, is more than just a heartbreaking tale of his patients returning home to die. It’s also a tale of the personal journey to find meaning in life — both his patients’, and his own search for a sense of place in the world.
“I want to lead you on the journey I took in my book,” said Verghese, MD, professor of medicine and well-known author. He spoke to a crowd of first-year medical students and their parents on Aug. 26, the last day of orientation, on the topic: “How to find meaning in a medical life.” It’s a question he wanted students to consider as they embarked on their medical careers.
“Where does meaning reside in life?” he said. “For many of us, we think meaning will come when I get into the school of my dreams, or when I have my first child.”
For the past few years, Stanford’s incoming medical students have been sent a copy of Verghese’s nonfiction book, My Own Country, prior to the start of school. The physician-author has published three bestselling books, with his most recent novel,Cutting for Stone, selling more than 1 million copies. His book-writing career began when he found that his scientific papers weren’t enough to tell the complete tale of the migration home to rural Tennessee of AIDS patients from cities across the country.This, Verghese’s fourth year as the keynote speaker at theSchool of Medicine, was immediately followed by a presentation of the student’s white coats and, later that night, a ceremony awarding the stethoscopes — a symbol of connection with their future patients. It was all part of a week of orientation events that featured a backpacking trip to the Sierras, a session on personal wellness, receiving iPads and, for the first time, a field trip to various off-campus health and community organizations. The 86 first-year MD students and five new master’s of medicine students began their first day of instruction on Aug. 29.
Long a champion of hands-on medicine, Verghese described sitting at the bedsides of these AIDS patients. He told of “the privilege of peeking into the lives” of these young men diagnosed in the early years of the AIDS epidemic when doctors could offer no hopes of cures, only solace to ease the emotional pain and attempts to battle the onset of infections.
“When a patient gets diagnosed with AIDS, it exaggerates every human emotion,” Verghese said. “Especially that human need to answer the question: What is the meaning of life? When these young men asked themselves, they found that it did not reside in good looks, in reputation, in achievement. Ultimately, they found it in the successful relationships in their lives, particularly with parents.”
Many of Verghese’s patients would tell him that the hidden blessing of their disease was that it allowed them to come home and reconnect with their parents. Their parents told of the same blessing in return.
“I believe I found it in my patients,” he said.Along this journey, Verghese also found an answer to his quest for meaning in life.
Now, he told the future doctors, it was their turn to find their own answers, and to follow their own journeys.
“Ladies and gentlemen, make good use of your time here,” Verghese said.
The new students are a select group chosen from a pool of 6,301 applicants. Women comprise 53 percent of the new class, and 19 percent come from underrepresented minority groups. The students come from 10 different countries, but most are from the East and West coasts.
Fourteen have master’s degrees, four have PhDs, 12 participated as varsity athletes in NCAA sports and 20 have conducted research or service work abroad.
Congregating in several small groups in classrooms in the Li Ka Shing Center for Learning and Knowledge following the keynote speech, the students had a few moments to consider Verghese’s words, to discuss their futures and, for the first time, to wear their white coats.
Medical student Ben Robison of Michigan spoke of his concern about the future struggle to balance the rigorous demands of a medical education with his desire to make the human connections, both with his classmates and his patients, that Verghese spoke of.
“It’s something I’m going to wrestle with,” he said.
It’s a dichotomy that is symbolized well in the white coat, said Neil Gesundheit, MD, associate dean for medical advising, who led the discussion in one of the classrooms.
“The white coat is a symbol of our profession,” said Gesundheit, seated in front of a long row of white coats hanging on a rack, waiting for their new owners. “One of the symbols is … purity and hygiene. Keep it clean.”
But the coat can also represent separation and aloofness. “You don’t want the coat to be a symbol of separation,” Gesundheit said.
“You will learn all these technical things,” he added. “The amount of knowledge out there has grown enormously, and there will be enormous pressure. But if you ask graduates what they remember most about medical school they will tell you that it’s the human connections with patients and [other] students that they remember most.”
Then, one by one, the coats were handed out. The students took off their jackets and blazers, pulled their new coats over their shoulders, buttoned them up and grinned at each other, ready to face the future.
Stanford University Medical Center integrates research, medical education and patient care at its three institutions - Stanford University School of MedicineStanford Hospital & Clinics and Lucile Packard Children's Hospital. For more information, please visit the Office of Communication & Public Affairs site at

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