Washington University School of Medicine Commencement Address - May 10, 2002
Dean Peck, members of the faculty, the administration and most of all the graduating class. It's a real privilege for me to be here, and it's also a chance for me to take this opportunity to prove that I am still alive. And I'll tell you why. A couple of nights ago, I was at home and the phone rang, and it was my publicist calling saying that there had been calls from AP, UPI, Reuters, CBS, FOX, CNN, etc., etc. reporting that I died. So... I'm just...for anybody here who cares...I'd just like you to know I'm alive...thank you very much. Thank you. What is kind of fascinating about the press is that they didn't take a name or phone number of whoever it was that planted this rumor. We can't figure out where it came from...unless it was Senator Brownback's office...but more about that later. It's very curious that the press wants a story but they don't really care about all of the reasons. They just want to know, "Is there a story. Is he dead? Is he alive? Is he dead? Is he alive? Is it worth sending a truck? Okay never mind." Just sort of interesting how the press works.
I'm glad to be here because I have a special, really a reverence for doctors that I never thought I would have. I've also, in the last seven years, seen many more doctors of various descriptions than I ever thought I would in my life. All of them have been just incredible. Beginning with Dr. John Jane, the great neurosurgeon of Virginia who literally saved my life. He performed an amazing surgery reattaching my head to the top of my spinal column. He had to because the C1 had been totally demolished--an absolutely amazing, groundbreaking operation. If it weren't for him, I wouldn't be here talking to you today. Also, we have doctors in our family. I remember when my sister in law, Deborah, was going through med school. We were all very excited because we thought with this, once she graduates and does her residency, there will be free medical care. She's going to be perhaps a pediatrician. That would be great or maybe an internist. That'd be fine too. And then she decided to be a pathologist. And I said I don't want to see her. Don't let me come your way. The whole range of what all the doctors, the nurses, all the people who have come into my life, have given me just a new appreciation for what it is that you do.
And today marks an amazing day in your life. When I think about the dedication, the sacrifice, the hard work, the years and years that it took you to get to today. The sacrifices your families made. The loans, you know, that you're going to be trying to pay off for years.
You know, it's just something that as a patient, you know I sit here, and I'm often very frustrated because politics gets in the way of advancing medical science in this country as quickly as it could go. I go, 'Why? Why? Why do we have to make research, science, medicine, the best care for patients, why do we have to make that political? Why do we have to base it on the bottom line for companies? Where is the idealism that should form medicine?' It is right here in this room with all of you who are about to graduate, and I just salute you for that because your idealism about becoming doctors that is what gives me hope because I know that you're not in this for the money. That's not going to happen. Not in this day and age. Maybe before the 80s, before HMOS, but not anymore. And that is great.
The fact that you would make the sacrifice of so much time, so much of your personal lives and go through this just because of your compassion for your fellow human beings. That means more to me than you will ever know. And one thing that you should really try to hold on to for as long as you possibly can is the idealism that I think you really feel in your hearts today. The fact that you've gone through college, gone through med school, and you're going to go onto a match up someplace to be an intern and work 100 hours a week. Be on call 24 hours a day. Make almost nothing. You're going to go through all of that. And then finally end up in a career that will be your life's calling. And along the way it may be easy to become jaded or to become very frustrated by the way that the system works. And I urge you to hang on to the feelings that you have today about what you've accomplished and what your role in our society can be because you're doing the right thing and there are a lot of people in our society who aren't doing the right thing. And I believe that for us to go forward as a society right now there's a big crisis. There's a crisis of confidence, a crisis of honesty a crisis of doing the right thing.
I don't want to turn this into a political forum, but I do have to ask questions that are very troubling. I'm just going to give you one as an example. As you know, in the 1970s, American scientists were working on in vitro fertilization, but the buzz word, "test tube babies," got around and there was a conservative backlash that caused the government to stop NIH research until an advisory commission could be formed to study ethics. In the meantime, over in England, they proceeded, and in 1978 the first test tube baby was born not in America but in England. And then finally following suit and seeing that it was accepted practice in other countries the first American test tube baby was born in 1981. Today there are 400 infertility clinics in the country and 178,000 Americans walking around who were conceived in a test tube and it's totally routine practice. So my problem is that what we fear today may very well become commonplace tomorrow. And in the case of in vitro fertilization, it wasn't that serious because we weren't talking about life or death but the whole issue of where we're going with research is life and death.
For example, Senator Brownback of Kansas has introduced a bill to be voted on in the next 10 days, which would not only ban all forms of cloning but actually criminalize it. So I could go to the UK, and I could come back walking and be arrested in the airport. That's absurd...just absolutely absurd. I follow very closely what he has said on the subject and he was asked by Senator Harkin in a hearing, 'What do you think about in vitro fertilization clinics?' And he said, 'I have no problem with them. Many of my friends have had fine children that way. It's fine by me.' Senator Harkin said, 'You're aware, of course, that at least a third or maybe more of the excess fertilized embryos from these clinics are routinely thrown in the garbage. They're thrown away.' Senator Brownback said, 'I believe a great majority of them are put up for adoption.' Well, let me tell you something. First of all, just in the state of Kansas, there's a no adoption policy. And in the last 21 years, only 100 fertilized embryos have been adopted by another couple. And yet, Senator Brownback is forming legislation that describes the little cluster of cells that is an unfertilized egg, just the zygotes, that would have its nucleus removed and then the DNA from the patient put in the process of somatic cell transfer. He calls that little clump of cells an individual.
So I have a big problem with that because therapeutic cloning is still in its infancy, but it has such promise. Not to encourage that research responsibly may result in a lot of people dying unnecessarily and keep a lot of people in wheelchairs longer than they need to. And countries all around the world are grappling with the issue and deciding that the purpose of government is to do the greatest good for the greatest number of people, and that you can regulate cloning, ban reproductive cloning and live up to our obligation to provide the best medical technology to our citizens. So sitting here as a patient when you have a legislature who doesn't know or turns a blind eye to the destruction of fertilized embryos, that says that a clump of cells is an individual, I really have a problem with that. I really have a problem. And the reason I bring this up is because I'm struggling to keep up my hope and the hope for patients like me and almost any other disease that you can think of.
I originally thought that progress would depend on money and bringing enough scientists into the field, particularly in the case of neuroscience to advance spinal cord repair. I thought that was going to be the issue, but it's not. We do have money. The NIH budget next year will be 27.2 billion dollars. When I was injured the budget was 12 billion dollars. And yet, we still have a problem because even though scientists are pouring into the field, their hands are tied by government policy and by the long delay in dealing with stem cells and therapeutic cloning, and frankly, we don't have the time to wait. We just don't have the time to wait. The more people who come into the field with the mission of doing the best for their patients and realizing that religion is not to be confused with government policy, that it doesn't belong in the middle of government policy... It's tough because it has sort of turned out that way in this country.
But we have to change that, and we have to let scientists speak about science. And we have to let scientists advance the most groundbreaking technology that will help their fellow citizens. And so my hope is that all of you, whatever your political persuasions are, whatever your religious persuasions are, whatever your own personal feelings are, again, that idealism that you have today about service, about what medicine means, about what you can do, please don't lose that. Please don't lose that in the middle of your path as you go on in life because we need pure medicine. We need the best medicine. We need ethical behavior, ethical conduct but doctors are ethical. Their conduct is monitored. I believe in doctors. I have the greatest admiration and reverence for doctors. Now we've just got to get out of the way and let you guys do your work.
Thank you so much for being willing to take the journey that you're taking and for doing that work. I applaud each and every one of you and thank you for making it and if there's anything that I can ever do to help, or if you guys ever want to be in touch to talk about issues, I can always be reached at the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation.
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