Welcome to Hero School

It’s a real honor to be asked to speak to you today… but deciding on a topic wasn’t easy.  I thought about giving you some tips on how to succeed in medical school… or how to study… or how to not be worried about how you will do… but none of that seemed right for the occasion.

So, because this is your convocation, I decided to start by looking up the word.

“Convocation” comes  from the Greek for “calling together”.  It is defined as a group of people formally assembled for a special purpose.

Human beings mark important transitions with ceremonies like this one.  We are familiar with these kinds of ceremonies in our families – ceremonies like baptisms, bar mitvahs, weddings and graduations.  The ceremony today is no different because it, too, marks an important transition.

We are formally assembled here for the special purpose of welcoming you and acknowledging that you are on the threshold of an important journey.

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Several years ago Body Worlds came to Houston.   For those that haven’t seen it, Body Worlds is a beautiful museum exhibition of human bodies, preserved using a special technique called plastination.  The exhibit opened in the fall, about the time I give some of the lectures in embryology.  It’s a time, as you will soon see, that the first year students are deeply enmeshed in the study of anatomy.  We discussed the exhibit in class and decided to arrange a field trip to the museum.

As I walked through the exhibit with the students, there were two things that occurred to me.

First, I had never been in a museum exhibit where everyone, from small children to the elderly, behaved with such reverence and awe.  There was no giggling or nervous laughter.  People were speaking in whispers, parents were holding children and pointing to the exhibits, showing them the beauty of the human body.

The second thing I realized was that seeing this exhibit affected me in a way I hadn’t expected.  As I talked to other physicians who had seen the exhibit I realized I wasn’t alone.  Prior to this exhibit, only physicians experienced the awe of dissection and this level of understanding of the human body.  It wasn’t that we didn’t want other people to see it …. but we all felt that something special to our world, which made us somehow a little different from other people, was now being shared with everyone.

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There are many professions that are noble.  There are many graduate programs that are difficult.  But it’s not the same… there is something different about the journey to become a physician.

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In every hero story ever told there is a predictable set of events.  This set of events, the hero cycle, was beautifully explained by Joseph Campbell, in his book The Hero With a Thousand Faces.

The hero cycle always starts with a need.  The community recognizes that something essential is missing and appeals to the hero to set out to find it.

The person chosen initially balks at idea.  “Who, me??? There’s nothing special about me.  Surely there is someone else who would be better. “   This is followed by the arrival of a mentor or friend who provides perspective and convinces the hero that he or she really is able.

And so, the hero takes on the challenge and leaves.

By necessity, this means passing from the known to the unknown.  Campbell describes this phase of the hero cycle as entering what he calls “a strange realm with new and different rules.”

As the hero enters this strange realm there are obstacles that have to be overcome, battles to be fought, mountains to be climbed.   There is always some self-sacrifice and nearly always some danger.  There are repeated tests. The hero often fails, but gets back up and starts again.

It’s also an important part of the hero cycle that the hero doesn’t do this alone.  There are guides and mentors along the way to give direction and provide instruction and tools that are needed to succeed.

Eventually, the hero overcomes the obstacles and obtains the object, knowledge or key that was missing.

The last, and most important part of the hero cycle is that the hero must then return back to the community with the treasure they have obtained.

I suspect the analogy didn’t escape you.

Somewhere you all learned of the need to relieve human suffering and heal disease.  All of you had second thoughts and wondered if you were good enough or strong enough to do this.  Most of you had a mentor or friend who convinced you that you not only could do it, but you should do it.

As a result, you are sitting here today ready to cross the threshold from the known to the unknown and enter this “realm with new and different rules”.

You will face tests and difficulties and you will, at times fail.  But I promise you, you will have mentors to guide you and give you what you need to succeed.

And… you will succeed.  Unlike the previous steps in your education, this system is designed to make sure you all make it through this journey.

And finally, like all heroes, you will take what you have learned back to your community to serve them.

Welcome to Baylor College of Medicine.

Welcome to hero school.

The faculty address I gave at the Baylor College of Medicine convocation August, 2016.

5 thoughts on “Welcome to Hero School

  1. Thank you so much for the warm welcome! Also, thank you so much for sharing your words and Orientation experiences on your blog and Twitter. It meant a lot to my family!

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