When Dr. Regina M. Benjamin, Surgeon General of the U.S., addressed more than 400 Drexel University College of Medicine graduates, she encouraged them to make a difference.
Benjamin shared some of her personal experiences during the commencement ceremony held last week at the Kimmel Center for Performing Arts.
While an intern fresh out of medical school, Benjamin was instrumental in getting a resolution passed in the Georgia delegation of the American Medical Association that encouraged medical schools across the country to include sexually transmitted diseases in their core curriculum.
"I learned that one person can make a difference, whether it's in medical policy or in medical practice," said Benjamin, who received an honorary doctorate of science during the ceremony.
Prior to becoming surgeon general, Benjamin practiced medicine at the Bayou La Batre Clinic in a small, poor Alabama fishing village, where her patients had problems that went beyond the prescription pad. With that in mind, she became more involved in the community organizations in an effort to obtain services for her patients.
She shared the story of "Donna," a young mother of two small children, whose seizures returned because the pharmacy switched her brand-name prescription to a generic drug. Donna, who could not read, did not realize that the generic medication had caused her seizures to return.
"You're going to have patients like Donna and others that will need you to be their voice. They will need you to advocate for them," Benjamin told the graduates.
With that in mind, she encouraged the graduates to become active in their respective communities.
As surgeon general, Benjamin provides the public with information available on improving their health and oversees the operational command of 6,500 uniformed health officers. Her priorities include childhood obesity, breastfeeding support, smoking, HIV/AIDS, youth violence, behavior health, medicine adherence, and health disparities.
As she addressed the graduates, Benjamin underscored the trust that people hold in physicians.
"There is nothing like the look on a mother's face when you tell her, her baby is going to be okay – whether her baby is three or 33. Our patients truly trust us. If a woman is being physically abused, she will tell you her deepest, darkest secrets before she tells her family, her priest, her minister or her rabbi – because she trusts you," Benjamin said.
"A mother will put her baby in your hands – a perfect stranger – because she trusts you. Your hands are often the first hands an infant feels when it enters this earth and sometimes your hands will be the last hands that an elderly person feels when they exit this earth."
As leaders, Benjamin reminded the graduates they never know who's watching them. She recalled receiving an envelope of letters from second graders who were inspired to become doctors, after they read a news article about her.
Benjamin is the former chair of the Federation of State Medical Boards of the United States. In 1995, she became the first physician under age 40 and the first African American woman to be elected to the American Medical Association board of trustees. In 2002, she was named president of the Medical Association of the State of Alabama – the first African American female president of a state medical society.
During the ceremony, former U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter was presented with an honorary doctorate of Humane Letters for his advocacy on behalf of the people of Pennsylvania and his contribution to the advancement of biomedical research and the improvement of the health of the nation. As ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health, and Human Services and Education, Specter was instrumental in doubling the budget for the National Institutes of Health and increasing funding for education.
Specter encouraged the graduates to become political advocates around healthcare issues.
"In order to be successful at delivering healthcare, you must be engaged not only on the bench in the laboratory or at the bedside with the patient, but you must also engage in the political process," said Specter. "To be successful we have to maintain great programs - Medicare, Medicaid, embryonic stem cell research, NIH funding and that requires political activism."
With a total of 443 students, the commencement marked the graduation of the largest class of medical students in Drexel's history. According to Drexel officials, the university has the largest medical student enrollment of any private medical school in the U.S., educating one in every 71 new doctors in the nation.