Several weeks ago I got an email from a Democrat on the Hill that said, “This might make you cry, right there at your desk.” She attached an essay by Donald Berwick in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
I saved the email but didn’t open it right away. It was a busy day in a busy month; I’ve heard Berwick speak often, during and after his stint as the head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid and when I was lucky enough to attend Institute for Healthcare Improvement conferences and hear his soaring, provocative keynotes. And I had just spoken to him myself a week or so earlier, after the Supreme Court ruling. I promised myself I’d read this. But later.
August finally arrived, work quieted down (sort of) and as I was trying to slash and delete my way through the email jungle, I found the Berwick essay. I clicked. The person who sent it had been right. I cried right there at my desk.
It was his commencement speech to the graduating class of Harvard Medical School this spring, and it seems on the 40th anniversary of his own HMS graduation.
“You will soon learn a lovely lesson about doctoring; I guarantee it. You will learn that in a professional life that will fly by fast and hard, a hectic life in which thousands of people will honor you by bringing to you their pain and confusion, a few of them will stand out. For reasons you will not control and may never understand, a few will hug your heart, and they will become for you touch points – signposts – like that big boulder on that favorite hike that, when you spot it, tells you exactly where you are. If you allow it – and you should allow it – these patients will enter your soul and you will, in a way entirely right and proper, love them. These people will be your teachers.”
One of his teachers was a patient he called Isaiah. Continue reading