Before Anthony S. Fauci, MD, even spoke, he received a standing ovation.
For 55 seconds, applause prevailed during the 2023 MD Commencement ceremony Monday, May 15, at Washington University in St. Louis. The graduates and their loved ones, along with faculty and staff, cheered for Fauci, who recently retired after 38 years as director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). He also served as medical adviser to seven U.S. presidents.
In his roles, Fauci gained fame leading the nation’s responses to COVID-19, AIDS and other deadly infectious diseases. At WashU, he received an honorary degree and served as the MD Commencement speaker to 110 newly minted physicians, most of whom entered the School of Medicine shortly before SARS-CoV-2 upended the world and disrupted their training. Fauci praised the students for their adaptability and resilience, which became evident as they persevered during the pandemic on their way to becoming physicians.
Shaking Fauci’s hand and sharing their joy with him in accomplishing such a momentous milestone proved as exciting for many of the graduates as receiving their diplomas after four or more years of intensive learning and training.
“Dr. Fauci is nothing short of a hero to me,” said Cyrus Ghaznavi, MD, an aspiring infectious diseases physician who soon will begin residency training in internal medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. “Despite political controversies, Dr. Fauci has shown dedication, compassion and honor in his advocacy for public health and patient care. He is all about following the science and is a master at translating complex concepts to nonscientists.”
The new physician reflected on the notion of beginning a career in medicine shortly after Fauci had retired from his. “I can only hope to emulate him,” Ghaznavi said.
Indeed, Fauci has served as “the ultimate physician-scientist role model, a scientific North Star in the midst of a three-year crisis filled with chaos and fear,” said David H. Perlmutter, MD, executive vice chancellor for medical affairs, the George and Carol Bauer Dean of the School of Medicine and the Spencer T. and Ann W. Olin Distinguished Professor.
“You are now entering the profession in a world posing all sorts of threats to medicine and medical science, including a pervasive mistrust of physicians,” Perlmutter told the graduating class. “Dr. Anthony Fauci exemplifies all of these values in a physician-scientist and in the virtues that have contributed to improving health in our society.
“You, too, will fight back against the mistrust and the alternate agendas by drawing on all those things that you learned here in this place during the storm of COVID — not just looking at the science, the evidence and not just the relentless pursuit of improvement, but also the ability to extend understanding and compassion to every single patient,” Perlmutter added. “Sometimes I think about the challenges facing medicine and medical science, and I feel apprehensive about our ability to reverse these troubling trends. But then I look at all of you. You have completed this first stage of your medical training under conditions none of us could have predicted, and you have not only survived but you have thrived.”
In his address, Fauci echoed the need for the new doctors to “embrace science and beware of the insidious nature of antiscience” while further cultivating adaptability, resiliency and humanity in patient care.
“As we in the United States, as well as the global community, officially close the door on the emergency phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, I hope you appreciate that alongside the pain, suffering and disruption, the pandemic offered you once-in-a-lifetime learning opportunities from which to launch your medical career and to witness firsthand an historic pandemic,” Fauci said. “In addition, it helped you to realize your own adaptability and resilience. These qualities enabled you to press on and emerge from this disruptive event to be here today to receive your hard-earned medical degree and, undoubtedly, will serve you well in future endeavors as medical professionals.”
Fauci continued by outlining key lessons learned from the pandemic.
Combat antiscience sentiments with facts, advocacy
The COVID-19 pandemic serves as a stark example of how misinformation and disinformation became the enemies of public health, Fauci said. “The promotion of lies, disinformation and false conspiracy theories caused thousands of people to doubt the safety and effectiveness of proven vaccines and treatments and, thus, to suffer illnesses and deaths that could have been prevented had they accessed these medical interventions,” he said.
“Do not hesitate to push back on these destructive forces, with civility but also with all the strength you can muster. As physicians with insights into evidence-based medicine, do your best to listen to doubts and concerns and, in turn, communicate with plain language and compassion to your patients, to the media and to anyone who will listen and explain what is known and what is not known. An increasingly important and vital part of your career will be helping people to understand and to follow the best available science-based information.”
This episode of 'Show Me the Science' visits the School of Medicine’s 2023 Commencement ceremony, featuring an address by Dr. Anthony Fauci
Prepare for the unexpected
As the pandemic unfolded over months and then years, Fauci continued, the virus revealed multiple secrets, each of which caught scientists by surprise.
“Importantly,” he explained, “we learned that SARS-CoV-2, unlike most other respiratory viruses, is most often transmitted from people who are infected but have no symptoms. Moreover, to further outwit us, the virus continually mutated to escape our immune defenses and protections, resulting in the repeated emergence of more transmissible variants causing successive waves of infections, hospitalizations and deaths.
“Each new revelation not only humbled us but also reminded us that when facing novel challenges in life, any predictions we might make about what will happen next, or how a situation will evolve, must always be provisional. And accepting that reality means also accepting the critical importance of being open-minded and flexible in assessing a situation as new information unfolds.”
Spotlight humanity in patient care
Fauci told of Dr. Francis Peabody, a famed humanitarian who nearly a century ago told medical students at Harvard: “One of the essential qualities of the clinician is interest in humanity, for the secret of the care of the patient is in caring for the patient.”
Fauci continued: “Simple words but as true today as they were then. In our modern world of technology, a CT scan does not care for your patient; robotics does not care for your patient; AI does not care for your patient. You and your humanity are the keys to optimal patient care. I have tried never to forget that. I urge you to do the same.”
He acknowledged humanity in WashU medical students mobilizing to help health-care workers and the community during the pandemic.
Along with two other students, Ghaznavi initiated the medical school’s COVID-19 response early in the pandemic. The effort led to the recruitment of more than 200 students who collectively volunteered more than 10,000 hours. Among their efforts, students created personal protective equipment and provided child care for front-line workers. They delivered meals to vulnerable populations during lockdown, assisted local health agencies with contact tracing, and raised public awareness about COVID-19 safety measures. Many also helped with vaccine outreach and administration.
“I am thoroughly impressed with the extraordinary and impactful response that your class mounted at the university and community levels during the height of the pandemic,” Fauci said. “While the broad context of my medical school experience and yours share many basic commonalities, your journey has been truly exceptional.
“You persevered in your training despite the profound upheaval, constraints and losses caused by the historic COVID-19 pandemic,” he said. “Consciously or subconsciously, each of you will carry an imprint of this public health crisis that intruded upon your formal education as well as on your personal lives. I have enormous respect for your dedication that allowed you to successfully complete your medical school training under these trying circumstances.”