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No Ordinary Moments in Life

It was not an ordinary day for graduating medical students at the GW School of Medicine and Health Sciences (SMHS), as they followed the bag-piped procession to their seats at their Medical School Diploma and Hooding ceremony—this day was definitely different. As this ceremony signified a milestone in the graduates’ lives, it was brought to their attention that most of life’s major moments are not marked by fanfare. This was a theme that Dr. Bill Magee, Jr., D.D.S., M.D. '72, co-founder and CEO of Operation Smile, a charity organization that helps treat facial deformities, such as cleft lips and palates, on children all around the world, explained in his remarks. These sentiments were echoed by Craig Forleiter, M.D., a new graduate in the class of 2011 who was appointed to speak on behalf of the class.

Dr. Magee did not realize his life would change the day he and several colleagues were performing surgery on the faces of only 50 of the 250 kids who lined up that day to have their cleft lips and facial deformities repaired by a group of doctors on a medical mission in the Philippines. The mother of one of the children brought Dr. Magee a bushel of bananas to thank him for trying to take care of her daughter—even though she was not one of the 50 kids that was chosen to be helped. Dr. Magee remembers this day and that moment and remarked that, when his eyes teared up, his motivation to help these kids was charged. “This is how Operation Smile began,” he explained.

As Dr. Magee addressed the 172 graduates, he recapped his storied roots, telling them about his adventures while reaching his goals and how the emotion of that moment with the Filipino mother helped him realize that he needed to begin Operation Smile, which has, as of today, helped over 160,000 children with facial deformities. From this experience, he learned that following your heart can open up a whole new world, and he encouraged the graduates to do the same.

He also gave real-life examples of how contacts that he made at GW helped him through his career and reminded the new doctors that their classmates sitting with them at graduation will be contacts for the rest of their lives. He also reminded them to never be afraid to ask people for help, because, if you don’t ask, no one can say “yes.” 

Dr. Magee noted that upon their graduation, the graduates were armed with the gift of knowledge, but how they use the gift is what will make all the difference. He encouraged the graduates to always remain humble, as, “without humility, it is difficult to use the gift you’ve been given.”

After the students received their diplomas and were hooded by over 50 faculty members who played an important role in their medical education, Dr. Forleiter addressed his peers with messages that repeated Dr. Magee’s thoughts. Dr. Forleiter reminded his classmates and colleagues to never lose passion for what they do. He noted that the medical education that they received has taught them all how precious life really is and to lead their own lives with dignity. He argued that even though getting articles in the New England Journal of Medicine is great, it cannot make you a better person. To conclude, he said that he humbly stood before his classmates, all brilliant and compassionate people, and urged them to move forward with no limits. “We are just getting started,” he said.

The graduates were charged to strive to make an impact as they begin their careers, commit to a lifetime of learning, and work hard to create change by Interim Vice Provost for Health Affairs and Dean, School of Medicine and Health Sciences, Jeffrey S. Akman, M.D.’81, RESD ‘85. After the students took the Hippocratic Oath, they ended their un-ordinary day by celebrating their achievement as new doctors with their families, friends, and classmates.