UCSF School of Medicine Sends Newly Minted Doctors into the World

Gold-Headed Cane Awardee to Pursue Primary Care at SFGH

By Lisa Cisneros

Marking a significant milestone in the lives of medical students, the UCSF School of Medicine conferred the doctor of medicine degrees to the Class of 2013 during a commencement ceremony at Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall on May 16.

Sam Hawgood, MBBS, dean of the medical school and vice chancellor for medical affairs at UC San Francisco, welcomed the medical students, their families, friends, faculty, staff and distinguished guests to the ceremony. The class consisted of 165 students.

"As you embark on your journey as physicians, I trust you feel inspired by what lies ahead," Hawgood said. "Inspired by your vision of who you want to become. Our goal at UC San Francisco has been to give you the confidence and tools that you will need to turn your vision into action. We hope we have trained you for a lifetime of caring, imagination and discovery. We want you to make a difference, and we trust we have prepared you well for the challenges and opportunities you will encounter. You, in turn, leave us a legacy, a school that has been enriched by your time with us."

Susan Blumenthal, MD, MPA, former U.S. Assistant Surgeon General and a clinical professor at Georgetown and Tufts University Schools of Medicine, delivered the commencement speech. Homer Boushey, MD, a professor of medicine at UCSF, presented the Gold-Headed Cane Award to Rachel Stern, MD, who plans to help address health disparities at San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center (SFGH). The cane is presented annually to a graduating senior who has been selected by classmates and the faculty as best exemplifying the qualities of a "true physician." Two other outstanding graduating medical students, Ashish Agrawal and Sam Brondfield, were given honorable mention. All three graduates become members of the Gold-Headed Cane Society.

Stern, who will serve her residency in the San Francisco General Internal Medicine Primary Care Program at UCSF after a much-needed vacation, answered these questions via email.

Why did you decide to become a doctor?

Ever since I heard the term "health disparities" as a college student, I understood I wanted a career in working to eliminate them. When I graduated, I took a job in public health research, as it is the genesis of many of our most successful interventions to improve the wellbeing of vulnerable people. I left public health to become a physician because frankly, I love both people and medical science so much. A career combining health disparities research and clinical practice, where I can regularly laugh, grow, and think with my patients, best feeds my mind and my heart.

Who is your role model in the health profession?

This is a three-way tie:

  • Elizabeth (Beth) Harleman, a UCSF mentor, educator, and clinician who practices at San Francisco General Hospital  [and Trauma Center.] Beth inspires me to care compassionately for underserved patients with my whole heart;
  • Denah Joseph, the interfaith chaplain on the palliative care service at [UCSF Medical Center’s] Moffitt-Long Hospital [on the Parnassus campus]. Denah has an incredible capacity to engage with patients and families from every walk of life. She reminds me that our humanity is what binds us together and enables us to connect to each other in times of suffering; and
  • My mom, Janice Spinner, a general internist in Los Angeles. She demonstrates every day that the combination of thinking rationally, acting genuinely, and following your moral compass can accomplish most anything. 

What are you most looking forward to now that you have graduated from UCSF?

Before residency starts, I plan to trek into the wilderness in Northern California for a couple of weeks with my ornithologist boyfriend. I am very much looking forward to some time to write, read, and learn something about birds. Then comes residency at the San Francisco General Internal Medicine Primary Care Program (SFPC) at UCSF. I'm so excited to grow my clinical skills under the guidance of UCSF's spectacular faculty, and especially to spend more time at San Francisco General Hospital. 

What is your reaction on being selected by your classmates for the prestigious honor?

I can't thank my classmates enough for this. They are the most kind, dynamic, brilliant, lovely people I could imagine attending medical school among. Medical school has been such a collaborative and positive experience that I wish I could break the cane up into 150+ pieces and share it. Instead, I will strive to be worthy of this honor throughout my career. 

Where were you born and how has your family helped shape you into the person you are today?

I come from a suburban section of Los Angeles with lots of orange trees. As I mentioned, my mom has always been a role model as a primary care doctor and human being. My dad was a fierce, ebullient man with a flair for storytelling, a background in psychology and a passion for doing the right thing. He informed the physician I am becoming in innumerable ways, maybe the most profound of which occurred when he passed away during my third year of medical school. With my mom as our wise, capable leader, my family cared for him around the clock so that he could die at home in accordance with his wishes. The love, grief, and hard work inherent in that experience will forever change the way I interact with patients and their families.  

What words of advice do you have for students considering medical school? 

If you have any doubts about pursuing medicine, or other careers you are considering, take them seriously. Go to the Peace Corps, write a novel, start a business. The good you do and the experiences you have outside of medicine will likely be of great value to your colleagues, your patients, and your own sanity. 

Photos by Elisabeth Fall/fallfoto.com