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I Have Learned a Number of Things

Joann Bodurtha '74

June 2003, Virginia. I am 50 years old. I have learned a number of things. Among them: Every human being deserves a good upbringing and respect. Teaching and expertise matter. I am grateful to be a doctor. I will die trying. How has Swarthmore influenced the unfolding of my genes? I find that my attempt to answer this question takes me on a journey through my memory that doesn't always run in chronological sequence.

September 1970, Swarthmore. The Career Office gives an aptitude test to incoming freshmen. Mine results in a tie score-I will be either a public speaker or a librarian. Is it off to McCabe for me, to talk in the library? My classmates are so capable, and my public high school preparation seems uneven. My German professor, Hilde Cohn, comments on my first essay: "Considering your limited ability, this little paper isn't bad." She smiles, and I believe that she is right. My math and physics professors, David Rosen and Mark Heald, are a bit more optimistic and dutifully sit through my questions during office hours. J. Roland Pennock and other faculty members have written the books we use in class. The possibilities of what we can do seem unlimited.

September 1974, New Haven. During orientation, a professor suggests that MCATS and GPAs should be ignored, and new criteria for medical school admission should be used: Applicants should have lived in a foreign culture, been sick, and been in love. I will study at the Nagasaki University School of Medicine after my second year because Swarthmore administrators cared enough to remember me and nominate me for a Luce Scholarship. I've been reasonably healthy, but I did have firsthand experience with the effects of sickness when I was a fourth-grader-my father had a long bout with cancer and was out of work. Love? It remains a question mark. On the first day of medical school, I am sitting in the back of a cell-biology class. I cannot understand a word the professor is saying. Everyone in front of me is taking notes. I realize that everyone else somehow knew that medical school was conducted in Latin. Then I recognize the word "ribosome," and I realize this isn't Latin; the professor has been speaking with a thick Romanian accent. I know about ribosomes. Bob Savage and John Jenkins talked about them in biology and genetics classes at Swarthmore. I have a framework for organizing all this new material.

September 1971, Swarthmore. I am in a room of my own on the fourth floor of Parrish. My closest friends are leaving, one to be with her dying mother and the other to try to find out who she is besides a dutiful student. I have taken just one shot in my entire career on the junior varsity basketball team against Cheyney State-and made it. Two weeks as the leading scorer percentage-wise! I am the one white woman in a swimming class of city-bred or international students who haven't had access to a pool. I am a lousy swimmer but initially the best among them. I am helping others not be afraid of putting their face underwater. Math class is down to me, two guys, and a Wang computer in DuPont. It is lonely, and I am not as good and creative at math as I think I need to be. A medical career, perhaps teaching genetics, might combine my love of math; my public-speaking aptitude; and my need, driven by childhood experiences, for a steady job.

June 1975, Philadelphia. Geneticists at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) have supported my application for a March of Dimes summer fellowship. I am at the incubator of a premature child with Down syndrome, as the scout for the geneticist. The head of pediatrics walks by with a group of medical students. He asks who I am. I explain, and then he asks me to tell the students about Down syndrome. It is my third day at CHOP. I have stayed up late reading about Down syndrome, but I am only a first-year medical student. I almost demur, but then I remember the times at Swarthmore when I didn't do well on exams but got back up again. I remember going to Bryn Mawr on the tricollege bus to hear Kate Millett talk about self-doubt and discovery. I remember the admissions interviewer at Swarthmore asking me why I had written my essay about my admiration for people who made decisions but weren't self-righteous about them. I explain Down syndrome to the Penn medical students.

September 1972, Swarthmore. I am dog-and-house sitting for George and Maralyn Orbison Gillespie '49, who remain models for us by gardening together and cultivating a life of grace, humor, and spiced peaches. Maralyn has also hired me to work in the Publications Office. I have a partial scholarship but need to make money for books, so I also work in the dining hall and at the College's telephone switchboard. In the summer, I had served ice cream at a Friendly's restaurant. "Friendly? You bet we are. My name is Jo-jo." I had felt sorry for myself, a Swarthmore student in a gray Puritan costume. I told the manager that I wished I were Paul, the dishwasher, who could never quite learn to scoop ice cream. He told me never to say that. "To Paul, his problems are as big as Joann's are to her." George Fox and the Quakers talked about seeing the light in everyone.

Fall 1979, Philadelphia. I am a pediatric intern, tired and scurrying. A phone call interrupts rounds. My Swarthmore classmate Dan Brenner has died. When he had been hospitalized at Penn for seizures, we had disgusting yogurt-eating contests like the ones we had had in college. What kind of doctor can't even help her friends? Dan was bright, so caring, and different.

May 1982, Swarthmore, Friends Meetinghouse. I have discovered love. Tom and I get married, with Terry Shane and the Pennocks as our overseers. Tom had commuted to a state university in Ohio, had objected to the Vietnam War, and had taken principled stands on other things.

September 1985, Swarthmore. I am on the Board of Managers. In my career, I am beginning to understand the persuasive powers of money-I have entered the mature world, where a big part of my job is generating the resources for others to do their jobs and good work. At the College, I see the way others engage in the struggle to avoid cynicism and hypocrisy, and to keep Swarthmore admissions need blind, diverse, and responsive to the greater world.

January 1983, Turtle Mountain Reservation, N.D. It is minus 17 degrees-before windchill. The natives do not care that I went to Swarthmore or Yale. The children are beautiful, but many mothers are battered. I start a tiny breast-feeding support group, try to get better medicines for the pharmacy, and introduce an office-appointment system.

April 2003, Richmond, Va. I tell a family that their seizing newborn has a "smooth brain" and will likely remain baby-like in development. I am grateful daily for the well-being of our 14-year-old daughter, Anna. The core of my job as a professor at an urban public university is handling interruptions-from student questions about genetics to patient crises and grant deadlines. Swarthmore gave me confidence that I could handle whatever would come before me, and the knowledge that teaching and expertise matter. It gave me a grounding in lifelong learning, addressing reality, and empathizing with the cast of characters that are at the core of being a doctor. My patients crowd my head as I try to figure out how to help them. We all are the products of a complex web of genes and environment. I wish all young adults could share in the nurturing provided by Swarthmore. My sense is that the gift of a Swarthmore education commits us to sharing what we can of the talents the College fostered in us.

Joann Bodurtha, a pediatrician and geneticist, teaches and does research at Virginia Commonwealth University.