Talking Climate With the Surgeon General at My Nephew’s Med School Graduation

Surgeon General Dr. Vivek MurthySteering my relieved but excited sister, one beaming set of grandparents, my two sons, and my husband through the Metro system and into the George Washington University’s School of Medicine and Health Sciences for my nephew Eric’s med school graduation was a bittersweet assignment.
Without other relatives in town, my family had made the most of Eric’s four years of medical school in D.C. We enticed him away as often as possible from coffee, Ramen dinners, and his nonstop studies for family meals and breaks. He graciously subbed in for countless games of Risk, showed up courtside at basketball games and at community theater productions to support his young cousins, and best of all, answered (with as much colorful detail as I’d permit) a variety of scatological and anatomical but also earnest scientific questions. Medical inquiries came not only from my young boys and family, but also a bevvy of curious friends and neighbors. Even before the “M.D.” was securely parked after his name, I saw first-hand how his white coat conferred authority and respect. As thrilled as we were for Eric to walk across the stage and into his hard-earned title, we were also a bit mopey about seeing our beloved gift-on-loan head west for residency.
GraduationEric’s departure presented yet another loss for me. As ecoAmerica’s health director, I’d had built-in access to the medical profession and a personal connection to a medical student’s day-to-day world and concerns. Eric’s crossing that stage meant I no longer had a ready touch point and thought partner as I endeavored to support incredible leaders across the health spectrum to prioritize the climate/health nexus and to engage their peers and the public on the need for climate solutions. Eric kept me grounded in the current reality that his already impossibly broad and deep course of study left little space for environmental health, much less for learning about the more specific health impacts of climate change.
Between scurrying about to host out-of-town family and juggling work and children, I’d had no time for graduation event details beyond inking in start times and location. It was only when I was safely in a “close-to-front row” seat that I finally had a moment to read the diploma ceremony program. The guest speaker was none other than our “nation’s physician,” United States Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy.
Our 19th Surgeon General had been on my mind since our Climate for Health National Leadership Convening in early April, when many health leaders pointed to the need for Dr. Murthy to leverage his national standing to issue a formal call to action on climate and health, or to otherwise play a leading role in expanding national awareness that climate change is dangerous to the health of all Americans.
Serendipitously, during 2015’s National Public Health Week that took place the week following the Health Convening, the White House and Surgeon General Murthy took some big steps to do just that. Participating in a nationally broadcasted event with President Obama, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, and other health and environment leaders, the White House and the Surgeon General positioned addressing climate change as part of a broader health agenda focused on prevention over treatment.
Dr. Murthy’s commencement address was largely personal, recounting how his immigrant father was the first in his family to emerge from generations of farmers to secure not only a formal education, but to become a doctor and eventually run a clinic in Florida. The example of his father’s personal investment in his patients made a powerful impression. Dr. Murthy encouraged the new physicians to push for health care equity as central to their profession. From my seat, I started mentally writing the sentences that might have followed – “and if you see within our ‘do no harm’ commitment the responsibility to also push for protection of the most vulnerable among us, then it is not a leap to see that it is now part of our duty as physicians to help our nation address the growing impacts of climate change on the health of all Americans…”
Though I couldn’t resist the silent editorializing, I also knew better than to expect that in a short commencement speech, climate and health would make the cut – this year. Still, I was impressed that Dr. Murthy stayed to enthusiastically shake the hand of every graduate and even good-naturedly complied with on-stage selfie requests from more than a few brave new doctors.
Surgeon General Dr. Vivek MurthyAfter cheering loudly enough to embarrass my nephew as a favorite instructor placed the prestigious medical “hood” over his gown and he penned his first “Eric D. Johnson, M.D.” signature, we dried our tears and made for the exit. To our surprise, Dr. Murthy was right in our path, staying even after the long ceremony to greet and congratulate family members. Knowing that the messenger matters, I encouraged my environmentally minded boys to hustle over with a message of thanks to Dr. Murthy for his recent leadership on climate change. I saw from my position in the wings that he was clearly astonished. He said, “Why thank you very much! And how do you know about that?” My boys responded in unison, “Our mom!” He replied, “Where is she? I’d like to meet her.”
Feeling a bit shy about bringing work into the occasion, but thrilled for the opportunity to praise his effort, I managed to briefly explain Climate for Health and the many leaders I worked with who believed that his unique leadership and national voice on the issue held great value. Dr. Murthy enthusiastically shared that more Administration leadership around climate and health was on the way, and soon. We briefly discussed the proposed upcoming White House Summit on Climate and Health that was first mentioned during National Public Health Week. We also touched upon how today’s medical, nursing, and public health education stood to change in the wake of a coalition of 30 deans recently pledging to train their students to address climate change’s health impacts. With our Climate for Health leaders Dr. Jay Lemerey and Dr. George Luber on the brink of releasing a new medical textbook on climate and health, many of the resources to make good on this new commitment are already emerging.
No pressure on my boys, of course, but if my nephew’s four years of influence had some effect (beyond clandestine, inappropriate watching and real-time analysis of “House” episodes), and if years hence, I happen to find myself navigating the emotional crowds at another medical school graduation (or two), perhaps I’ll have the opportunity to learn first-hand how environmental health and the climate/health connection becomes more central to the future of a medical school education – one focused more on prevention, and the reality that there can be no health without a healthy planet.

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