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Bob Wachter’s 2017 Penn Med Commencement Address “Go to Radiology”


Dean Jameson, Trustees, Faculty, Family and Friends, and most of all, Graduates of the Class of 2017:

Standing before you on this wonderful day, seeing all the proud parents and significant others, I can’t help but think about my father. My dad didn’t go to college; he joined the Air Force right after high school, then entered the family business, which manufactured women’s clothing. He did reasonably well, and my folks ended up moving to a New York City suburb, where I grew up.

There were a lot of professionals in the neighborhood, but my dad admired the doctors the most. He was even a little envious of them. This became obvious on weekend evenings when he’d get dressed to go out to a neighborhood party. He’d look perfectly fine – slacks, collared shirt, maybe a sweater. But there was one thing out of place: he’d be wearing our garage door opener on his belt. “Dad, what exactly are you doing?” I would ask, somewhat mortified.

“There’ll be lots of doctors at the party tonight,” he’d reply. “They all have beepers, I have nothing.” The strangest part was when the party was next door, the garage door would sometimes go up and down, as dad showed off his “beeper.”

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“I Like (Political) Science and I Want to Help People”

I thought I was an oddball in college. I’ve only recently learned that I was avant-garde.

Right before beginning college in 1975, I decided I wanted to be a doctor. Being the first-born son – with decent SATs – of an upwardly mobile Long Island Jewish family, I had relatively little choice in the matter. Notwithstanding this predestiny, I felt confident that medicine was a good fit for my interests and skills.

But on my med school interviews four years later, I stumbled when the time came to answer the ubiquitous, “Why do you want to be a doctor?” question. The correct (but hackneyed) response, of course, is “I like science and I want to help people.” You’ll be comforted to know that I had no problem with the helping people part. It was the science thing that threw me for a loop.

It wasn’t that I didn’t like science, mind you. I found biology interesting, and organic chem was kind of cool, in the same way that Scrabble is. But I barely tolerated Chem 101, and disliked physics.Continue reading…

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