Reflecting on a time nine years ago: Speaking at the Philadelphia Health Corps Graduation

Some days during one’s career escape categorization into the “daily grind.” I speak not of this evening, which just released me from the grasp of my son, who never wants to sleep. I’m not about to explore the tough task of wresting myself from him, so instead let’s talk about more pleasant things. Today, I was given the honor and privilege of speaking at the graduation of the Philadelphia Health Corps – a group of which I was a part nine years ago.

This day, among others, reminded me of why I do the job I do. And it wasn’t even just because of the speech and seeing the young pups of Americorps graduate toward better things.

Some days, you enjoy each patient interaction and really feel like you are making a difference in their lives. You successfully refer an uninsured patient to the Emergency Room and manage to talk not only with the attending on service in the ED – whom you happen to know as a colleague from your Residency – but you also talk directly with the family who you referred and confirm that they understand the plan. You receive a call from a parent you know well and manage to help them with their child’s situation. You see a huge long list of patients, are running around like crazy all day, sending faxes, going from room to room, hardly getting a chance to eat and rarely sitting down. A specialist calls you and the two of you embark on a wonderfully intellectual conversation about assessing patients’ levels of disease and the treatment necessary for each of them. You see some familiar patients, and are energized in your interaction with many of them, especially the ones who you have seen come so far in the two years you have now spent your practice. And you enjoy every minute of it, from when you came in the door to the long, awful commute home – which at least gave you an escape from the highway since you found out early enough in the commute that a major accident was blocking your way home. You come home to your husband and son and as you spend most of your evening dedicated to preparing dinner, cleaning up, and getting these guys to sleep, you feel great about it.

Today was that day. Each of these things happened, and more, and . . well. . . Frankly, it surprised me. Turns out I *like* to work and I *really like* being busy – especially when the emotional rewards are right there around me as I am doing my work.

And then, along with everything else, you get to give a speech to an organization that completely changed your life when you were not even in medical school yet. Is anyone from the PHC graduating class reading this, I wonder? Yes, Americorps did change me. It oriented me even more toward working with the underserved than I had been before my time at the PHC. It made me understand clients at a very personal level. It also brought me some of my best friends in the world. What an honor to get to speak before them and have my announcer – a member of their class – regard me as someone admired in my health clinics as one who goes above and beyond for her patients. Thank you for that; it’s not every day that people take notice of the things that we try to do. The work we do is not just for a paycheck, it’s for the patients, and it feels good when someone sees what we are trying to do. Thank you. Thank you.

Here is a transcript of what I shared with the group:

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Thanks to L___ and M____ for having me come to speak at Philadelphia HealthCorps graduation. 9 years ago I was sitting in your shoes, saying hi to G___ on my way into the office, working my last few days at work, sitting across the hall from V___, sharing war stories of the summer camp we had run with my Americorps buddies, and receiving prank phone calls from friends in an office down the hall.

The year 2002-2003 challenged me and my group in many ways; thirty-four of us had chosen to scrape by, living in Philadelphia and working with various agencies served by the Healthcorps. We began to understand what it was to be in the working world. We developed new projects for ourselves as members and became intimately experienced with the services offered to our clients, as we were often enrolled in services such as food stamps ourselves. In a short period – not quite a year – we armed ourselves with the ideals to serve others and the skills to persevere through the challenges of a service-oriented job. Not surprisingly based on the demographic of students selected for the healthcorps, we eventually came to careers of service ourselves.

Now, as a pediatrician for the health department, I have had the fortune to serve the patients who I once served through Americorps. You couldn’t have told me that I would be here today, but as Douglas Adams once said: “I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I intended to be.” Life’s decisions take us certain places for a reason! Mine helped me serve families in Philadelphia, and brought me my husband and young son.

It’s truly a great thing to see that things haven’t changed much the PHC since then. You are all service-oriented individuals, fighting the good fight. Yet in other key ways how much things have changed: how driven you all are! How mature in your thoughts and focused in your goals. Yes, I’ve seen the blog. Your group has so much to be proud of, and your role in your patients – and my patient’s lives is not to be underestimated. Whether it be in obtaining prescription benefits for an elderly woman, or teaching young children to get along with one another in the school yard, or obtaining cribs for infants, you touch families’ lives at *EVERY STAGE* of their lives.

Truly, I wonder, out of 5 million Philadelphians, what percent of families have been touched by the work of you thirty here today? What is the six degrees relationship of any Philadelphian to a member of the PHC strong? I’m not a math expert, but I am pretty darn sure that it takes far fewer than the six degrees to connect most any Philadelphian to one of you, and if the over 1,000 active prescription assistance patients at Health Center 2 is any example, or my elementary school patients at Penrose or my mothers who are involved with Mommobile serve as any example, I have a hard time imagining that there is a family in Center City that has not been affected by the work that you all do in at least some way.

Even if you had not won a national service award commemorating your achievements, you’d still be winners in all of their books. But, oh yeah, you did win that award. Yet another reason for all of us to tip our hats to you!

So now each of you has come to a few crossroads in your lives. Completing college last year led you to wonder what to do with the future months: was it a future in medicine before you and the long string of applications you’d have to complete? Perhaps a future in law, or in social work? For the time being you chose to serve others through Americorps. It was fun at times, tough at others, boring at still others, yet you made a difference.

Here you are now, sitting together a year later after the name games, the icebreakers, hopefully closer to the friends around you, about to take that next crossroads. Maybe you will be working for the city for another year, or perhaps you have chosen to continue on that path toward a medical career, like I did at the time. Hopefully you have enjoyed the journey thus far and, like we did while in the PHC, I hope you laughed a lot together, even in the failed ventures, the things that didn’t work out about this year. Because I’ll tell you – not all of us were able to get into medical school after that year of Americorps. Not all of us were able to pursue our dreams right after that year. No, you can’t always have the moon if you want it. Don’t bother reaching for the stars, you probably won’t be able to catch them anytime soon since they are several miles away.

But if my little speech offers nothing more than this piece of advice on pursuing your goals in life, remember this a piece of advice which comes from a comedienne who has never failed to make me laugh, or think: Lucille Ball. Can you get to where you want to be? Can you achieve your goals. Lucy once said, “It’s a helluva start, being able to recognize what makes you happy.”

In your journey out this door and into the rest of your lives, remember that the only thing that stands between you and reaching for your dreams is knowing what those dreams really are. And I wish that knowledge for each of you; may you have the fortune and the presence of mind to recognize your desires in the future and to make decisions that aid you in pursuing those desires. It’s harder than you think, knowing what you want in life. Only when you recognize what you want can you then reach for it. So start there.

My heartiest congratulations to each of you Philadelphia HealthCorps Graduates. Enjoy this last day together as a family because I can guarantee that you probably all will never be in the same room again in your lives. As I have relayed to some of you: I have had the fortune of growing up, staying close to several PHC members I met all those years ago. Most of us, okay, all of us, are still in service-oriented careers akin to what we did in Americorps. We still go to dive bars together and sing Karaoke. We have attended one another’s weddings. Our children play together. I hope history repeats itself because, guys, it’s a cool ride. Thank you.

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A pediatrician. Now turned first-time mom. Venting and giving you all the wisdom I acquire over the days . . .

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