Mubeen Shakir speaks to fellow HMS grads on choosing compassion and kindness

Mubeen Shakir, Image: Steve Lipofsky

Good afternoon, Class of 2019! Congratulations! We made it!

I am honored to be with you today and proud to say that after years of effort, we are finally going to be doctors. But not just any doctors, Harvard doctors, which really means no one here knows how to treat lower back pain.

Today, we are celebrating and grateful for you: our families, friends, teachers and staff. We would not have gotten here without you and your tireless support.

Read more about HMS/HSDM Commencement and Class Day.

When I was visiting my family in Oklahoma City, which I was told by my surgery attendings is a small town just west of Chicago, I told my 6-year-old niece I was graduating from Harvard, to which she replied, “What’s that?” And then she asked, “Where is the rest of my peanut butter sandwich?” 

Her comments reminded me that today, and the rest of our careers, are not about this esteemed school, but who we are and what brought us here, and also that it’s a bad idea to eat a 6-year old’s lunch. We came here because we care. We have chosen a job where, every day, the person in front of us and their suffering matter. We should be proud because this is not an easy choice.

Even in our moments of ignorance over the last four or five years here, or, for some of you MD-PhDs, 27, we have learned how much this care matters. Patients remembered us because we sat with them, because we spent an extra minute at the foot of the bed to learn from them. We can always return to this. No matter how difficult, we can still choose to be kind, to care for those around us unrelentingly.

In thinking about who we are, I am also grateful for all you, my classmates, as we have lifted each other up through the years. In our time here, we have learned among truly exceptional people, both in who you are and what you have done. Our classmates have published seminal research in top journals, they have led protests and shaped policy, one of us is a professional Spartan athlete, and one of us once even ate two medium-sized pizzas by themselves … that’s me.

I am especially grateful for the spirit of activism in this class and our efforts to repay our privilege. So many of you have worked to open doors for others, recruiting women and people of color into this field and this school, where there are not nearly enough in positions of leadership. You have left this marble Quad to give your time in service to others, from caring for people in jails to mentoring young people in the communities around us.

Yet, the demands of our coming training may cause us to forget these obligations of our privilege. Amid the long hours, we will face the suffering of our patients. And they will suffer despite our greatest efforts and medicine’s greatest innovations.

Our patients will suffer until we are able to care for the poor as much as the rich—we, a nation where millions are homeless and millions more live in poverty. They will suffer until we can affirm that black lives matter and eradicate policies of racism. They will suffer until we stop policing women’s health and their bodies. We will all suffer until we stop stigmatizing addiction and mental illness and give people the treatment they need.

Outside of the hospital, our society will suffer as mass shootings in schools and houses of worship continue without political or policy change.

In these next few years, time may be scarce and our energy lacking when it comes to facing the many challenges of the world. We have a duty to meet them, to speak out and act, and I believe we can and will. But I also believe the most important choice we have in the coming years, among the many we’ll face, is to return to what brought us here: to care, to be kind. Not only with our patients, but with our friends, our colleagues, and those around us who are suffering.

We have the choice to not judge our patients for what brings them to us, to hold off criticism of our colleagues, because we don’t know what they are going through, to reach out to a friend who seems down, and to spend the extra minute at the foot of the bed before checking the boxes on rounds. We always have this choice.

I am reminded of a gynecology fellow who told the team that we needed to be efficient. A minute later, she was sitting for what became 15 minutes with a young woman who recently had surgery for ovarian cancer. To our confused looks, she said, “We’ll be late, but it’s the worst week of her life—so let’s remember that.”

I am reminded of all of you, my classmates, who stay late to connect a patient with care, who come in on weekends just to see a patient and who reach out to support friends in the midst of hardship and loss.

Our profession is rooted in this compassion. And our collective compassion, at the bedside, in the OR, in the lab, or in advocacy, is truly a form of justice for a suffering world. Our speaker today, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, exemplifies how caring for one life can save thousands. Despite the uncertainties and the challenges we face, I am hopeful.

I am hopeful because I know all of you. I am hopeful because, on our diverse paths, if we continue striving for compassion and striving for kindness in our work, both for the people we know and those we don’t see, together we can accomplish great things and truly make the world, at the bedside and beyond, a better place for those around us.

Class of 2019, my friends, it has been an honor to learn alongside you and a privilege to know you. God bless you all, good luck and thank you very much.