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MD Program Graduates Bridge Social Distance to Come Together for Hooding Ceremony

From living rooms and backyards across the country, members of the George Washington University (GW) School of Medicine and Health Sciences (SMHS) MD Program Class of 2020 took the next step in their medical careers in a virtual graduation celebration on Sunday, May 17.

Streamed to nearly 2,700 computers across 37 countries, the ceremony maintained school tradition by opening with the traditional bagpipe processional of senior leadership. Unlike ceremonies of the past, the virtual event offered a more immediate and intensely personal celebration of the students’ achievements. Many of this year’s graduates donned their academic hoods with the help of family members and friends. Each graduate had a brief moment in the limelight, some holding their children while others waved their diplomas as they slipped into their new regalia.

Graduates Amali Dilhara Gunawardana, David Poran Strum, and Austin Wu followed the bagpipe processional with a performance of Cyndi Lauper’s Grammy Award-winning song “Time After Time.”

Following the performance, Strum, Class of 2020 valedictorian, introduced the day’s keynote speaker, Jo Shapiro, MD ’80, FACS, who serves as an associate professor of otolaryngology-head and neck surgery at Harvard Medical School. She also is a principal faculty member for the Center for Medical Simulation in Boston and a consultant for the Massachusetts General Hospital Department of Anesthesia, Pain, and Critical Care.

Before embarking on her keynote address, Shapiro took a moment to confess her “strong bias” toward SMHS. “What always moved and inspired me here was the culture of caring and compassion, as well as the high standard set for all of us. I received what I believe is the finest medical education anyone could ever have. An education that provided the foundation for everything I have been able to accomplish in my career, and also the foundation of my entire life.”

In her remarks, Shapiro addressed the sweeping role physician wellness plays in modern health care, in both preventing burnout and improving patient care. Developing constructive methods to address emotional stress and conflict in the health care professions has played a significant role in in Shapiro’s career. In addition to serving as a surgeon and an educator, Shapiro has been a “culture change warrior” in the fight for physician wellness initiatives. In 2008, she founded the Brigham and Women’s Hospital Center for Professionalism and Peer Support, where she served as the director for more than a decade.

“The culture of medicine is both beautiful and flawed,” Shapiro told viewers. “The most beautiful aspect is that we are healers, and nobody will take that away from us. The flawed part of the culture is that as physicians and other health care providers, our own humanity has been devalued.”

She added that the physical, mental, and emotional needs of health care providers have implicitly and explicitly taken a back seat. “Any effort to acknowledge our needs and get support in dealing with them is anathema.”

To help prepare the new graduates to enter a world fraught with many long-standing challenges, as well as an on-going pandemic, Shapiro encouraged the class members to serve as change agents, supporting the wellbeing of clinicians. “Each of us at any level, can act in a way that strengthens the parts of the culture that we value, and change the parts that need changing. This is an immense responsibility, as well as a golden opportunity.

“My deepest hope,” she said, “is that we can give the same compassionate care to ourselves and each other as we do to our patients and their families.”

Following the keynote and the hooding, Kunj Rajendra Bhatt, MD ’20, delivered the student speaker address. He thanked his parents who came to the United States 30 years ago with little but hope and uncertainty, “this degree is also yours,” he told them.

Bhatt then turned to his classmates and congratulated them for their early commitment to the community. “From managing COVID-19 hotline and testing sites, caring for the children of hospital workers, and calling senior citizens facing social isolation, you have proven our readiness to set up and serve as exemplary leaders. To the Class of 2020, we did it.”

This year was Barbara L. Bass’s first graduation address as the Dean of SMHS. In her remarks, Dean Bass, MD, RESD ’86, compared the impact COVID-19 will have on the graduates to another epidemic that swept the world as she was completing her residency training at GW and preparing to enter the health care workforce.

“During my training in general surgery at GW, several decades ago, I too was frontline on a different unknown but terrifying infectious disease,” she recalled. “That terrible malady was characterized by wasting muscles, susceptibility to deadly rare infections, [and] the growth of long unseen malignancies in previously healthy young men.”

Of course, the epidemic to which the dean referred was HIV/AIDS. Then, like now, physicians on the frontlines armored themselves with layers of personal protective equipment and put aside their concerns about personal exposure to enter clinic rooms and operating theaters to care for their patients. “Like now, the victims were separated from loved ones and then died sad, isolated deaths,” Bass said. “Many shades reminiscent of this early experience of what we called AIDS reflects on today’s experience with COVID.”

Just as the AIDS epidemic revealed the humanity and suffering of a marginalized group, she noted, COVID-19 has revealed stark and ugly truths about race, social determinants of health, and access to health care. “This dreaded COVID disease offers a great tragic revealing … that our communities of people of color are bearing a far greater burden in this pandemic. It is our responsibility to address these disparities — to codify, to address, and to remedy these inequities.”

Turning back to the graduates, Bass concluded, “so that’s your moment, this moment in history when you each of you is becoming a physician. … Thankfully, I know you are well prepared to jump in.”

Watch the MD Ceremony


2020 MD Program Student Awards:

Medical Student Excellence in Anesthesiology Award
John Papanikos

Medical Alumni Association Award
Areta L. Bojko

Robert Keith Cole Memorial Award
Nina Victoria Reyes Abon

Dean’s Special Recognition Award
Yushekia Sherell Woodford

Walter Freeman Research Award
Kiersten Renee Snyder

William G. Schafhirt Award
Justin David Arnold

John Ordronaux Valedictorian Award
David Poran Strum

Lawrence A. Rapee Valedictorian Award
David Poran Strum

The Leonard Tow Humanism in Medicine Award
Presented by the Arnold P. Gold Foundation
Joanna Poceta

Walter F. Rosenberg Award in Dermatology
Dustin Howard Marks

Student National Medical Association Hope Jackson Award
Christian Hendrix

Department of Emergency Medicine Award
Damani Rashid Mcintosh-Clarke

Society for Academic Emergency Medicine Award
Lydia Moheb Andrawis

American College of Emergency Physicians Award
Jacob Campbell Martin

Benjamin Manchester Humanitarianism Award
Max Roland Ruben

Office of International Medicine Programs, Global Health Humanitarian Service Award
Tianna Sheih

Allie S. Freed Award in Preventive Medicine
Max Roland Ruben

Phillip S. Birnbaum Award in Primary Care
Kirsten Ellye Homma

Mark Millen Memorial Award
Samantha Austin Starr

Jorge C. Rios Award in Internal Medicine
Katherine Elysse Negreira

Hyman R. Posin Award in Neurology
David Daniel

American Academy of Neurology Excellence in Neurology
Cayla Maria Vila

Samuel M. and Miriam S. Dodek Award in Reproductive Endocrinology
Julia Buldo-Licciardi
Jennifer Leigh Shields

Rachel Morris Dominick Obstetrics and Gynecology Award
Marie Elizabeth Sullivan

Huron W. Lawson Award in Obstetrics and Gynecology
Kathleen Langford Curley

Julius S. Neviaser Award in Orthopaedic Surgery
Alex Gu

William Newman Award in Pathology
Thomas Zaikos

Pediatric Departmental Award for Excellence in Care, Advocacy, Research, and Education Alexandra Lieberman
Gabriel Sol Zuckerberg

Jerry M. Wiener Award in Psychiatry
Timothy Michael Muse
Elyssa Beth Sham

Navdeep S. Kang Award for Excellence and Service
Jay Kenneth Davidson

Alec Horwitz Award in Surgery
Betel Yibrehu

Paul L. DeWitt Award in Surgery
Vanessa Sandra Niba

Excellence in Public Health Award
Linda C. Yang

Excellence in Family Medicine Award
Linda C. Yang
Caitlin Smith Davis