By Jane Erikson
In 1979, as Jim Scott was nearing the end of his service as a Peace Corps volunteer in Sierra Leone, he made his next big decision. He wasn’t absolutely sure, but he thought he wanted to be a doctor. So one evening, he sat in his hut and wrote his application to medical school on an old-fashioned manual typewriter.
A 1977 Notre Dame graduate who was born in and grew up in Scottsdale, Scott applied to only one medical school – and was accepted.
And 30 years after graduating from the UA College of Medicine, he returned on August 9 to the stage of Centennial Hall as the college’s Alumnus of the Year and keynote speaker for the White Coat Ceremony, at which each new medical student is given his or her first white coat.
“I wasn’t your typical pre-med student, and I certainly didn’t have the typical plan,” Scott told the students of the Class of 2017.
“I thought I was going to be a family practitioner in a small town. Instead I’ve been an ER doc, working five blocks from the White House, for my entire career.”
Scott’s career has been based at the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences, starting with his residency in 1984, and where he served as dean from 2003 to 2010. He continues as professor of emergency medicine, while caring for patients and nurturing students’ interest in serving the underserved.
Scott also is a recognized leader in the field of global health. This summer he helped launch the Global Health Service Partnership, a new program within the Peace Corps, in collaboration with the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and the non-profit Seed Global Health. With Scott as senior academic adviser, the Global Health Service Partnership provides American physicians and nurses to teach their counterparts in the African countries of Malawi, Tanzania and Uganda.
With reflections both humorous and heart-breaking, Scott shared with the students of the Class of 2017, and their friends and family members, some of his own experiences as a medical student and his thoughts on what they will experience over the next four years.
Once he got back to Phoenix from Sierra Leone, Scott and his girlfriend decided to marry. They chose a Saturday in her hometown in Pennsylvania. It meant flying out of Tucson the same day as Scott’s first anatomy exam.
“The exam was being given on Friday, at the end of August, and I was able to convince the professor to let me take the written exam on Thursday and fly to Pennsylvania on Friday, to get married on Saturday. Sunday morning we flew home, settled down in the Motel 6 on I-10 for a couple of weeks until student housing opened up, and then I took the anatomy lab exam on Monday – which I’d studied for, for about six hours on a plane after my wedding night. I didn’t do so well on the test.
“But what I can tell you is that two weeks from this weekend my wife and I will celebrate our 34th anniversary.”
Scott also shared with his audience an email that he had received from an American obstetrician volunteering with GHSP in Tanzania. After a full day’s work in the local hospital, she returned home, only to be summoned back to the hospital, where a pregnant young woman was near death because her airway was blocked by an abscess from a decayed tooth. The staff and the volunteer doctor tried, but could not save the young mother.
The obstetrician then performed her first post-mortem c-section, to try to save the fetus. “My heart sank even further when I found not just one fetus, but twins,” she wrote in her email. “We tried to resuscitate them but we never got a heartbeat.”
Not every medical student will choose to work in impoverished countries overseas, Scott said, but they must acknowledge that such health care disparities exist and need to be corrected.
“What you can’t say is, ‘That’s not my concern,’” Scott said. “And the reason is because today, you’re going to put on a white coat. And with this white coat comes unbelievable amounts of knowledge . . . and innumerable opportunities to make a difference. And I hope that we all do what we can to make a difference.”
Scott assured students that as they progress through the basic sciences and begin their clinical rotations, their knowledge of medicine and their confidence will grow exponentially. But he offered an important suggestion:
“Remember, your medical knowledge does not surpass your mother’s until you are at least in your third year – and then, only occasionally.”
He cautioned friends and family members that their medical students “are about to change. They’re going to start speaking a new language. They’re going to stand on the porch and look at the grass and say, ‘Look – the crabgrass seems to be metastasizing.’
“Just warning you, there will be some odd moments.”
And there will be difficult times, Scott said – from failing an exam, which sometimes happens, to losing a patient for whom the student feels responsible, which certainly will happen.
“What I want to say to all the parents and husbands and wives who are here, creating a physician takes a village. You know these students better than any of us do now and probably ever will.
“Keep them talking to you, even when they don’t feel like talking. Go for a walk and make them go with you. Make sure that occasionally they read about something that doesn’t end with the word ‘ology.’ They will read enough microbiology, pathology, pharmacology. Maybe make sure they get a weekly dose of reality TV – it seems all Americans now have a need for that.
“With your help, and the help of the faculty and their own dedication, these students will not only become great physicians, they will become better citizens and better human beings.”
And to the students, Scott said, “I don’t think you know where you’re going, but the journey is still going to be wonderful. My career started here at the University of Arizona, and I have not predicted any of the things that have happened to me. But I do know that I’ve enjoyed it along the way.
Good things are going to happen to you. Having an overall plan for your life, I actually don’t think is possible, and in my experience it’s not even desirable. Just go with it. Do what you like. Do it well. Do it really well. Work hard. Act responsibly. Care about those around you. . . Life’s going be fine. You’re going to get through this. Enjoy every day and enjoy every step of the way. We’re very proud that you’re here. We know you’re going to make a difference. Have some fun while you’re doing it.”