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“This is ‘by far the most useful and important work I have been called upon to do.’”

A student at graduation faces away from the camera wearing a black graduation cap.
By Don Batisky

Atlanta, GA
United States

I joined the faculty of the Emory School of Medicine about 11 years ago as a clinician-educator. Early in my time here I became aware of Emory’s Society system and seven years ago I was selected to be a faculty member in Emory’s Osler Society. It’s the best job I have ever had. Working with my medical students is not only interesting, motivating and humbling, but also so very rewarding.

As I have grown into my role as a member of the Osler Society, I have also read more about Dr. William Osler and reflected on his many profound quotes. Osler is credited with bringing medical students to the bedside, and thus is quoted as saying: “I desire no other epitaph… than the statement that I taught medical students in the wards, as I regard this as by far the most useful and important work I have been called upon to do.”

While I agree with Dr. Osler, the current COVID-19 pandemic has led to rapid adaptation in every aspect of our lives, and one cannot overlook what is going on in medical education. Because of concerns for student safety, medical students have been pulled out of clinical rotations, teaching is being done remotely, and we are adapting to these changes as we figure out how to best prepare our students for all that lies ahead.

As this story started to unfold over the past few weeks, I reached out to my former students to offer some words of support. The Class of 2018 included my very first group that I took from M-1 through M-4 [first- through fourth-year medical education], and most of them scattered across the country for residency. Three are in Seattle or New York City and they have all seen COVID-19 front and center. Over several days, as I heard back [from my former students] around the country, one message from a young physician was especially poignant:

"Thank you for reaching out. I’ve been thinking a lot recently about your teachings during our time in medical school. Especially during these uncertain times, your adage that life is shades of gray rings truer and truer. While each day we learn more and more about this pandemic, its impact on human health, and its broader impact on global economics and society, we still face a vast void of knowledge — the gray. And as we stare into this abyss, scared for our own safety and wellbeing in addition to that of our loved ones, I am comforted by your wisdom. That chasm, that gray, is where we are called as physicians. It is where we will make the hard decisions and push ourselves to grow beyond what we think possible of ourselves. If ever there was a place to make a real impact, to save lives and shape life, it is here in the gray. This is what you prepared us to do. And I can never thank you enough.”

We are learning a lot these days — a lot about a virus and its effects on our human bodies; a lot about PPE, social distancing, and flattening curves. And we are learning how to teach innovatively as well. I look forward to the day when I can see my students together in a classroom or clinic or at the bedside. I look forward to teaching them not just renal pathophysiology and fluid and electrolyte balance, but also those nuances, those shades of gray, of taking care of a patient.

I will paraphrase Dr. Osler when I honestly state that I desire no other epitaph than the statement that I taught medical students in the classroom, in the clinic, on the wards, and via Zoom. This is “by far the most useful and important work I have been called upon to do.”

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