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School of Medicine Commencement Features Physician and New Yorker Writer Atul Gawande - 05/15/2007

School of Medicine Commencement Features Physician and New Yorker Writer Atul Gawande

Graduates include F-16 fighter pilot, musical composer, girl who never rode a bike
Release Date: May 15, 2007

Atul Atmaram Gawande, M.D., M.P.H., a prominent surgeon, best-selling author of  “Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science” and New Yorker staff writer, is the guest speaker at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine’s 111th diploma award ceremony Thursday, May 17, at 2:30 p.m. in the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St., Baltimore, Md. 

Gawande, also a regular contributor to the New England Journal of Medicine, was the choice of this year’s class of 213 M.D., Ph.D., M.A. and M.S. graduates.

Thomas Koenig, M.D., associate dean of student affairs, says Gawande was chosen by students because he represents both “youth and great accomplishment.”

Gawande has achieved celebrity among the general public as well as the medical profession for his research and writing about human factors and failures in medical practice, as well as his forward-thinking solutions to a profession he believes has serious nonscientific challenges.

An assistant professor of surgery and health policy management at Harvard, he practices at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and in 2006 won a MacArthur Fellowship recognizing his investigations of modern surgical practices and ethics.

The School of Medicine diploma ceremony follows the all-Johns Hopkins University Commencement earlier in the day, during which the medical school graduates are greeted.

 Other speakers at the event include Edward D. Miller, M.D., dean of the medical faculty and CEO of Johns Hopkins Medicine; Thomas W. Koenig, M.D., associate dean for student affairs; Peter C. Maloney, P.h.D., associate dean for graduate student affairs; David B. Hellmann, M.D., professor of medicine; Uwe C. Scharf, director of the Department of Pastoral Care for The Johns Hopkins Hospital; Class of ’07 medical student Lorrel Brown and graduate student Paria Mirmonsef.

There are 213 graduates this year from the School of Medicine, earning 112 M.D.’s., 76 Ph.D.’s, 10 M.D./Ph.D.’s, 9 M.A.’s and 6 M.S.’s.

This year the medical school class included 57 men and 65 women from 27 states and six foreign countries who will continue their medical training at some of the most acclaimed residency programs in the country, located at 60 hospitals in 24 states. Members of the graduating class will specialize in everything from emergency medicine to pediatrics to obstetrics. The class is the 111th since the school opened in 1893, and, while the shoes of this year’s graduates will be hard to fill, there is no shortage of people attempting to do s There are 4,349 applicants for 120 open slots in this fall’s entering class.

Student Lorrel Brown will give the convocation for the M.D. graduates.

“The students in this class were an amazing group with interesting lives,” says David Nichols, M.D., vice dean for education at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “The diversity of this class was truly breathtaking, not just in terms of their varied backgrounds and former careers, but also in terms of their wide-ranging personalities and the expansive spectrum of their professional interests.”

Among the graduates are people as different as Matt Stofferahn, Meenakshi Rao, Rob Kosciusko and Paria Mirmonsef.

Stofferahn was well on his way to becoming a professional composer. But after getting a bachelor’s in musical composition, the 24-year-old Las Vegas native, who “skipped” third grade when his teachers realized he’d be bored, decided he wanted a career “with more social application.” Always good at science, he decided medicine was a good fit.

“Medical school was actually less stressful to me than composing, which can be an intense and often isolating experience,” says Stofferahn, who celebrated getting his M.D. by spending spring break in Sydney, Australia, ahead of his residency in emergency medicine at Christiana Hospital in Wilmington, Del. which starts in June. “Who knows? Maybe one day I’ll write an opera about doctors.”

Like Stofferahn, Rao always excelled in academics, graduating from her Pittsburgh high school at age 16, a feat made more significant by the fact that her family immigrated from India to the United States when she was 6. After her work study fell through her first year of undergraduate college, her advisor suggested she apply for reassignment in a research lab. That slight change of plans brought her to medical school in Baltimore, where she learned how to ride a bike and swim for the first time (an urban upbringing prevented her from learning as a kid), and where she just achieved a pediatric residency slot at Children’s Hospital in Boston, Mass.

“My experiences at Johns Hopkins have been nothing short of wonderful, both in the basic science arena, as well as my clinical education,” says Rao. “I interviewed all over the country for M.D./Ph.D. programs, but from the moment I arrived at Hopkins, something just clicked. I have found exceptional mentors here, as well as lifelong friends.”

Something at Johns Hopkins just clicked for Kosciusko, too, who says medical school taught him not only how much he didn’t know, but where the boundaries are between known science and the universe of yet-undiscovered knowledge. Not that the 38-year-old National Guard F-16 fighter pilot is a stranger to the great unknown.

Kosciusko, who was born in Hawaii and whose wife, an attorney, also flies fighter jets, deferred his 2002 medical school acceptance to fly combat missions in Iraq, explaining that becoming a doctor was out of the question while his “buddies” shipped off to war. After coming home from the Gulf, he briefly worked for a major airline, but flying a lumbering commercial airplane proved boring, “like driving a city bus after you’ve been driving around for years in a Ferrari.”  During his first year at Johns Hopkins, his need for speed had him regularly driving to South Carolina, where he and his wife are based, to keep his flying skills sharp.

It’s little wonder that a man who craves the “thrill and rush” of sitting in the cockpit of a fighter jet chose a residency in emergency medicine at Palmetto Health in Columbia, S.C.

“In emergency medicine, everything is going fast and coming at you all at once,” says Kosciusko. “The ER is a bit like the cockpit in that people and sensors alert you to dangers, and it’s your job to prioritize and handle the most pressing threat.  I already felt comfortable in that environment, but the training I received at Johns Hopkins gave me the knowledge to succeed in it.”

Kosciuko’s pride at having attended Johns Hopkins likely rivals the pride Mirmonsef’s parents feel when they tell anyone who cares to listen that their daughter attends the great Johns Hopkins University. Their daughter, who entered an American high school in 1989, with the family fresh from Iran, could barely speak English. Her parents struggled and saved to put her and her sister, who is a dentist, through school. It was a long, hard road for the family, who, like many immigrants, left their country in search of a better life.

“Back home we came from an upper-middle-class background,” says Mirmonsef, who is receiving a Ph.D. in pathobiology and will give the convocation on behalf of the Ph.D. graduates. “When we got to the States, we didn’t start from zero, we started from minus 10.”

Now, she feels like she is realizing not only her dreams, but the dreams her parents had for her by achieving her education. Now married, she and her husband are expecting their first child. And while what she will say in her graduation speech is a complete surprise, what she is having is not: a girl.

She did offer a glimpse of what she might say, advice she would perhaps give to a young girl, overwhelmed by a new country, wondering if the American dream was really there for the taking: “I’d say to her, just hang in there, because it gets better. If you have a goal and you see it through, your dreams will happen. Mine did.”

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