EDINBURG — If every valedictory address was as poignant as Dr. John Krouse’s speech before the UTRGV School of Medicine’s class of 2021, there’d be no risk of anyone sleeping through another ceremony.
The speech came at Match Day on Friday, a momentous occasion. UTRGV’s second fourth-year class of med students were about to open envelopes containing the name of the medical center they’ll spend the next several years at, the main event of Match Day, a national, annual day of recognition for medical schools and students across the country.
Crisp, energetic, and grandiose without being cliche, the dean spoke like a man who had passed through the crucible and was coming out on the other side.
In many ways, he has, and so have the med students who found out where they’d be completing their residencies Friday.
For a year now Krouse, who is retiring in 2021, has had the unenviable task of delivering the residents of the Rio Grande Valley bad news. He, along with other doctors and community leaders, has spent the last year telling people that holidays are canceled and urging them to wash their hands more.
For 12 months, Krouse has had to tell people that if they really love their loved ones, they should be doing it from a few yards away.
Krouse has urged them — more insistent than critical — to take the COVID-19 pandemic seriously; never spouting out false hope, but ending with the message that there was a bright, shining day waiting at the end of the tunnel if everyone did their part.
That bright shining day, by all appearances, was Friday at the UTRGV baseball stadium.
Krouse, and the class of 2021 who were about to find out where they’ll spend the next several years of their lives practicing medicine, have made it through the hard part.
“It’s been a remarkable time, yet here we are on a sunny day, beginning to emerge from the depths of that pandemic,” he told them. “And you will all have responsibilities in the months and years ahead to keep our society safe from disease and to treat those who do become ill, whether from COVID-19 or any other illness.”
Krouse spoke to those students about the charge they’ll have as doctors, about the solemn oaths they’ve sworn to care for the needy and ill, rocking gently behind his podium and holding down an orange foam Stetson. He told them he was sure they already represent those values.
They have, after all, been put to the test.
“I think your lives will forever be touched by the experiences that you’ve had in the last year,” Krouse told them.
The students were in the bleachers with their families. Not as many as there would be in a normal year, and all shuffled through strategically to avoid much mingling.
Among them was Patrick Ojeaga, a fourth year medical student and the UT System Student Regent.
Ojeaga was excited to open his letter and see where he’d spend his next six years, and a little nervous.
He’d wanted to be a doctor since he was a kid. His dad’s a doctor and his mom is a nurse practitioner and his brother, Macaulay, was standing in the stands to open his own letter Friday.
Medicine runs in the Ojeaga’s blood.
Last year was hard for the Ojeagas and the rest of UTRGV’s fourth-year med students. It threw a lifetime’s worth of labor into uncertainty.
“Whether we’re going to be able to finish medical school,” he said. “Whether we’re going to be able to continue learning and serving in the community as medical students, helping out in the hospital.”
It stayed hard even after they knew they’d be able to finish medical school. Patrick says the class of ’21 is particularly close-knit, and he hasn’t seen many of his colleagues for a year. Even Friday they were kept at a distance from each other out of necessity.
The work got harder too, the pandemic making a difficult career path even more difficult.
The uncertainty of the pandemic, Patrick said, and the isolation it thrust patients into, was gut-wrenching.
“Being in the rotations and being around patients and those patients not being able to be around their family members, or going into the hospital alone,” Patrick, 25, said. “I think that was also very challenging. A tough time.”
There was a lesson in that hardship, as Krouse implied. Patrick said the isolation and the challenges brought the focus back on the point of the scholarship and the medicine and the rotations. They brought it back to the patient.
“It brings the human side of medicine to light,” he said. “Sometimes that can be forgotten in just the day to day, going to work. But also you realize you’re dealing with people, and you really can come to appreciate it. I mean, that’s the reason many of us decided to pursue medicine in the first place.”
Young and talented and a consummate optimist, Patrick doesn’t linger on those hardships. He’s focused on the future, on how to move past the pandemic.
For him, that’ll mean orthopedic surgery. A former athlete, he wants to do pediatrics and sports medicine, although the thought of becoming a team doctor has certainly crossed his mind.
The other med students and their families were focused on their future as well Friday. The crowd let out a pent up roar every time one of them read their letter and announced the medical centers they’d be working at, hospitals across Texas and up and down both seaboards with a smattering in the midwest.
They roared when Patrick and Macauley read their letters too — both got their top choice.
Patrick will be doing his residency in orthopedic surgery at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School in Dallas, drawing, Krouse expects, on the lessons he learned at UTRGV — and during the pandemic.
“You have all undergone a journey in medical school that non-physicians simply cannot understand or appreciate,” he said. “This is an experience unlike any other and I know that you will carry forth successfully and know that I and all of our faculty are extremely proud of each of you and all of your accomplishments.”