29 May, 2005
Class of 2005, congratulations! I wonder if some of you are like I was 25 years ago, daydreaming during the speeches, coming back to one main thought. Do I have to leave Swarthmore? How will I find anything better than this place and these people? Perhaps your parents, like my own, will have to drag you from here later today, while you try to grab one more conversation with a friend or professor before all of this ends. Twenty five years ago, I was certain that the liberal arts chapter of my life was ending, and filled with dread about the next installment. In my case, I was trading Ancient Philosophy for Anatomy and Physiology. I thought graduation marked the end of the "examined life," and on to a future of examining tables and starched white coats. But I was wrong. My first homily to you is this: it's not the end, it's the beginning.
When I began college here, Philadelphia was immersed in a mysterious outbreak of pneumonia at the Legionnaires convention downtown. My senior year, I received a free sample of Rely High Absorbency tampons in the mail — these were soon linked to another new disease — toxic shock syndrome — that struck nearly 1,000 people that year — most of them healthy young women a lot like myself. These new and scary infectious diseases were hitting close to home, but I was oblivious to them. I was planning to be a small town family doctor, never imagining the detour I would take to infectious disease research and global public health. So here's your second homily: You can change your plans. Keep your passion, but allow yourself to follow it to new places.
I dropped the small town idea and headed to New York for my medical internship. It was 1984. The city hospitals there were reeling from perhaps the scariest new disease — AIDS. I learned clinical medicine during a terrible time. We told people they had this new disease AIDS, and within a few hours or days were offering them life support. I got to know my patients and their loved ones as their stories together were ending. But for the past decade, I have had the then unimaginable luxury of getting to know similar patients without the end of life crises. Based on phenomenal advances in HIV medicines, this disease can be treated. Of course there is more to do — expanding access around the world and improving prevention — but for millions of people this is now a treatable problem. My third homily is: History happens fast. It is all around us — don't forget to treasure the times when it actually moves forward.
During my Swarthmore years, the US and China normalized relations. Delegations from China visited the campus, and members of my family began their own exchanges. I did not get to China myself until two years ago — when another new disease — SARS — spread around the world in a matter of days. Travelers at one hotel in Hong Kong, with nothing more in common than staying on the same floor on the same night, launched outbreaks of this new virus in several countries. The largest outbreak struck Beijing. CDC and the World Health Organization sent me to Beijing, where local health authorities mounted an incredible response. China had been slow in coming to terms with the epidemic, but once they took action their efforts were extraordinary. Worldwide transmission of the virus stopped, and this one "new disease" did not succeed in gaining a foothold on the planet. Here is my last homily: The world is small; the problems are big; but there are solutions everywhere. Class of 2005 — make your life be about solutions.
Let me close with a few words of gratitude: I thank my mother, father, sister, and brothers — whose passion, strength, and humor nurtured me — this honor is for them. I also thank my husband, who shows me every single day what matters most. And last but not least, I thank the College, first for the fantastic education and lifelong friends you gave me 25 years ago, and now for this truly precious honor. I did not want to leave Swarthmore in the first place so thanks so much for inviting me back!