The sun always rises after a dreadful, stormy night

Editor’s note: The following is the commencement address Dr. Hussain delivered to the 2020 graduating class of the University of Toledo College of Medicine and Life Sciences, OH. It has been edited to conform with Bulletin style. Readers can contact Dr. Hussain at

It is strange to participate in a ceremony where the audience is conspicuously absent. Like all of you, I miss the pageantry, pomp, and circumstance that is part of the rites of passage for graduates. I hope things will return to normal soon.

In my remarks, I will be brief.

I learned brevity from a sixth-grade girl who was asked to write a very short essay depicting elements of religion, intrigue, pageantry, and royalty. She rose to the occasion and wrote a one-line essay: “Oh my God, the Queen is pregnant! I wonder who has done it?”

Today is an important landmark in your lives. It marks the end of one phase of your life and the beginning of another exciting phase. Today’s celebration, however, is but a wayside stop on the long journey that lies ahead of you.

Your commencement today is different but memorable. It is happening at a time when COVID-19 (the coronavirus 2019) has been wreaking havoc with our world order.

Most commencement speakers tend to advise the graduates about life beyond the university. I shall refrain from doing so because I know the shelf life of such advice is extremely short. I also know that commencement speeches are time-honored but rather redundant exercises. You will soon forget who your commencement speaker was and what he or she had to say.

This reality was brought home to me rather vividly a number of years ago when I met a young critical care nurse at St. Charles Mercy Hospital in Toledo. She had recently graduated from Mercy College of Nursing where I was the commencement speaker. With some excitement of being recognized, I asked if she remembered the commencement speaker at her graduation. “I don’t remember,” she said, adding, “I don’t think he said anything worthwhile to remember.” I was too embarrassed to tell her the truth.

So, instead of pontificating about life and its ramifications, I will try to emphasize your role in a changing world and the impact you are destined to have on the field of medicine in the U.S. and around the world.

So, instead of pontificating about life and its ramifications, I will try to emphasize your role in a changing world and the impact you are destined to have on the field of medicine in the U.S. and around the world.

Our profession faces innumerable challenges even during calm and tranquil times. But, unlike other professions, our role as health care providers remains paramount and central. In the pandemic, health care providers have been on the front lines. They took care of the highly contagious patients, regardless of the risks involved, and a number of them have given their lives while trying to save others. Among them were hundreds of professionals who came out of retirement to extend a helping hand.

Times like these remind all of us in health care, both physicians and nonphysicians, that when there is a need beyond the call of duty, we respond. We are not robots or indoctrinated soldiers who, when ordered, march into an inferno, like the soldiers in Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem, “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” It is the inner voice that prompts us to put our lives on the line. To be a physician is a calling, and in crises we consider it to be our sacred duty to respond.

In normal times, life is a juggling act. How does one balance professional life with personal needs and still make time for the family? It is difficult, but not impossible.

You don’t have to plunge headlong into your practice. If you devote all your time submerged in medicine, there will be, I assure you, a steep price to pay in the form of broken families, burnout, substance dependency, and depression.

William Osler, MD, FRCP, the great Canadian physician and teacher, advised his students, “While medicine is to be your vocation, or calling, see to it that you have also an avocation—some intellectual pastime which may serve to keep you in touch with the world of art, science, or of letters.”*

To that, I would add lifelong learning as part of your journey as physicians and scientists.

Most of what I did as a surgeon, I did not learn in medical school or in residency, but rather on the job. I assure you that the bulk of what you will end up doing professionally has yet to be discovered.

As Alexander Walt, MB, CHB, FACS, Past-President of the American College of Surgeons (ACS), and my mentor at Wayne State University, Detroit, MI, noted during his ACS Presidential Address: “Yesterday’s frontiers have become today’s pastures, and today’s frontiers will become tomorrow’s pastures.”

You, members of the medical school class of 2020, are the ones who will turn medicine’s far-flung frontiers into comfortable pastures. This exciting challenge is yours to accept.

My humble suggestions based on 40 years of surgical practice are as follows:

  • Practice medicine but with empathy.
  • Resist being placed on a pedestal by society and your patients; climb down and stay grounded.
  • Do not ever forget that statistics about health care are not just numbers; they are patients with their tears wiped away.
  • Question anything that you don’t understand because progress can only be made by questioning the validity of long-established rules and dogmas. History is made by those who challenge, and not by those who conform.

The landscape of the last year has been sparse, haunting, and depressing. However, I would like you to remember that after a dreadful stormy night, a bright morning is tiptoeing in the wake of an unfolding dawn.

Instead of dwelling on our current environment, think of the great times you have had as students at this great institution: romances, friendships, free lunches, overseas global health trips, or early morning runs with the dean.

I would like to share with you a poem that is a marvel of the Romantic Age of English literature. I first read William Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely As a Cloud” (also known as “Daffodils”) 65 years ago when I was an undergraduate student at Islamia College, Peshawar, Pakistan. The last stanza is as follows. I leave you to recall your own fields of daffodils:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

I wish you a COVID-free world.

*Osler W. Aequanimitas: With Other Addresses to Medical Students, Nurses and Practitioners of Medicine. London: H. K. Lewis and Company. 1904; 213. Available at: Accessed January 19, 2021.

Walt AJ. Presidential Address: The uniqueness of American surgical education and its preservation. Bull Am Coll Surg.1994;79(12)8-20. Available at: Accessed January 19, 2021.

Wordsworth W. “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.” In: Poems, in Two Volumes. 1907. Available at: Accessed January 19, 2021.

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