Following is the text of the address by Lloyd Minor, MD, dean of the School of Medicine, for delivery at the school’s commencement on June 14.
Welcome to the 2014 commencement ceremony for the Stanford University School of Medicine. To parents, families, and friends: Thank you. Your support and sacrifices have helped make this momentous occasion possible.
To the graduates, congratulations! Today is an exciting day, a milestone in your career, and for many the start of what will be a new life in a new city. For those of you leaving the Farm, I hope you will take the innovative spirit of this special place with you.
As Stanford graduates, I believe you are well prepared to help realize the promise and potential of this auspicious time in biomedicine, to be leaders in your chosen fields.
Whether you go into clinical medicine, research, business, law, public service, or education, a leader is someone who asks questions — and waits for the answer. More importantly, a leader takes time to listen. (As students, I know all of you have had plenty of experience in that respect.)
Listening is the key to learning — and to finding your way in a complex and ever-changing world, no matter where you end up or in what field you decide to work in.
It is the most relevant and important skill, whether you leave here with an MD, a PhD, a master’s, or one combination or another. When you listen, you learn. When you learn, you make a difference.
Listen to your heart, your own internal compass that will point you in the right direction.
As a young otolaryngologist at Johns Hopkins Hospital, I saw some patients in my clinic with an odd constellation of symptoms. One man said he got dizzy when he sang in the shower. Another said he could hear the sound of his own eyes moving. Psychiatrists referred some of these patients to me. The symptoms didn’t make sense, but I kept listening — trying to make some sense of their varying complaints.
To make a long story short, I eventually came to discover that these patients were experiencing symptoms coming from inside their heads — but not in the ways others might have supposed.
They were suffering the symptoms of having tiny holes in the bone overlaying the superior canal of their inner ears. I first described this syndrome in 1998, naming it superior canal dehiscence. By this time I had already come up with surgical solution to correct the problem and alleviate symptoms. This surgery is now practiced around the world and has brought benefit to hundreds of patients.
For physicians, a much-quoted aphorism is “Listen to your patient, they are telling you the diagnosis.” For me, this was certainly true. But I have found that the power of listening goes far beyond the medical examination, it’s one of the most powerful tools I use as a leader, to say nothing of its importance for me as a colleague, father, and husband.
As you seek to find your place in this changing world, listen carefully to your mentors and colleagues and your students and supervisors. Listen especially to those who disagree with you — those with experiences, assumptions, values and beliefs that are different from your own.
And above all, listen to your heart, your own internal compass that will point you in the right direction. Listening carefully will allow you to learn what is most important — for you, for your patients and for your profession.
Our commencement speaker today is someone who has spent his career listening, and that skill has taken him in directions I’m sure he never expected when he was at his own commencement at Madras University School of Medicine in 1979. Abraham Verghese’s career certainly has not followed a straight line.
For those of you unfamiliar with Dr. Verghese, he is the Linda R. Meier and Joan F. Lane Provostial Professor in the School of Medicine and vice chair for the theory and practice of medicine. He is the author of two highly admired memoirs and a bestselling novel, Cutting for Stone. His writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal, among others. He joined us here at Stanford Medicine in 2007.
Dr. Verghese says that his early years as an orderly caring for terminal AIDS patients taught him humanity and empathy.
Dr. Verghese emphasizes that medicine is an art as well as a science.
The deep relationships he formed and the suffering he witnessed showed him the importance of seeing patients as individual human beings in need of comfort and reassurance, and not just medical expertise. He took time off from medicine to study at the Iowa Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa, where he earned a master of fine arts degree. Since then, he has divided his time between caring for patients, teaching and writing. In all aspects he emphasizes the enduring power of the human touch and the importance of listening and caring.
Dr. Verghese emphasizes that medicine is an art as well as a science, a blend that physicians and researchers — and teachers and deans — must remember and adjust to constantly. He is a strong advocate for the value of bedside manner and the physical exam — skills he sees waning in an era of increasingly sophisticated medical technology.
Dr. Verghese’s impact is so powerful because he listens. He listens to his patients, certainly, but he also listens to the voice inside him, the one that told him to share his insights and that pointed him in an unconventional direction.
My wife gave me a box a few years ago that’s inscribed with a quote from Lord Chesterfield: “In order to discover new oceans, you have to have the courage to lose sight of the shore.” Abraham Verghese is here today in great part because he had that courage. He listened to his inner voice and discovered a unique way to practice and teach and share the most important lessons of medicine.
My wish for each of you is that you will find that courage as well. As you move to the next phase of your life, have the courage to follow unmarked paths, to explore uncommon territory, to head off into new directions. Listen, learn, and push your boundaries. That’s the most important lesson I hope you take away your time here at Stanford. That’s what will make you a leader. And that’s how you will make a difference.