On medical school graduation day, believing anything is possible

On medical school graduation day, believing anything is possible

On medical school graduation day, believing anything is possible


Work with your health care teammates, be ready to ask for help, and do your part to reimagine medicine. And when mom calls, take time to chat.

By Willie Underwood, III, MD, MSc, MPH, FACS , Chair, AMA Board of Trustees

Editor’s note: This column is adapted from a commencement address Dr. Underwood will deliver this afternoon at the University of South Carolina School of Medicine’s commencement ceremony.

This time of year, graduating classes from coast to coast will hear advice from all walks of life—musicians and entertainers, corporate executives and entrepreneurs, even a famous YouTube personality or two.

I have been blessed to graduate three times in my life. And if I’m being honest, I don’t remember anything the commencement speakers said. I want this one to be different. I want my message to stay with you because becoming a physician is a journey unlike any else.

So, here are some essential truths that I have learned in life and during my long career in medicine that I hope will help you get through the difficult times that will surely come your way.

It takes a team

No one, and I mean no one, arrives at graduation day on their own. Whether they’re sitting in the stands cheering you on, or their memory is alive in your heart, you’re surrounded by friends and family who love you, who’ve supported you, who believe in you, and they are celebrating all that they knew you would become.

Success is a team sport. The health care world you are stepping into is complex and multilayered and constantly changing. Science and technology and approaches to treatment are never static.

But there is one thing that never changes about medicine: We are at our best when we work as a team in service to our patients.

We all come from different backgrounds and communities. Our professional roles and what we aspire to do may be different. But when it comes to health care—when it comes to caring for people in need—we are all one team. We work in concert with one another.

You may be a doctor or a nurse or a researcher or a technician—we have one goal: Changing lives for the better. And our success in achieving that goal is all that matters.

Did we give our patient the best chance for a positive outcome? Did we counsel her with compassion and respect for human dignity? Did we live up to the high standards of our profession?

Wherever your careers take you from this moment, remember we are united in service to our patients.

Don’t forget what matters

The second piece of advice begins with a story. Your support network is larger than you realize.

When I graduated from medical school, I did not understand the depth of love that my mother, grandmother, aunts and grandfather had for me.

When I was an attending physician, my mother would call every day. And she would always call in the middle of the day when I was extremely busy. Rarely, I would talk to her. Mostly, I would tell her that I would call her back. And most of the time, I didn’t. Instead of relishing in her love for me in those moments, I was annoyed that she was distracting me from a job that demanded my full attention.

It’s painful for me to admit this, but once I achieved my dream of becoming a physician, I forgot about those who sacrificed so much for me to attain that dream. It’s the medical student who takes the tests, who logs all of those hours studying, who may have skipped evenings out with friends or ended a relationship prematurely. You have sacrificed a great deal in pursuit of your dream. But without your family, your friends or your support system, you would not be sharing in this special moment.

And here is where it hits home. One day, that call came that nobody ever wants to receive. It was from my aunt, telling me that my mother was gone.

Now, I wish she would call me. I wish that I could call her back to say, “Thank you for caring, and for keeping me on this path.” It wasn’t easy. I wish I could tell my mom I love her and share in all the great experiences I’ve been fortunate to have.

For Dr. Underwoods wisdom on being ready to ask for help and seeking out possibilities, read the full article.

Subscribe and thrive in residency

Get tips and insider advice from the AMA on navigating and making the most of medical residency—delivered to your inbox. Subscribe now.

Not a member? Join the AMA today.