Demystifying Medicine One Month at a Time

Convocation 2013

OU-Tulsa Convocation

May 7, 2013

Reynolds Center, University of Tulsa Campus

Remarks of John Henning Schumann, MD

Graduates, Families, Friends, Staff, Faculty, Dignitaries:

graduation_cap_and_diploma-2091Congratulations to you on reaching a major life milestone—graduation—having earned the degree that you’ve sought—whether the dream was born only a year or two ago, or decades before.

Tonight, almost 500 of you are honored as graduates of our vibrant institution. En masse, you are an amazing collection of individuals.

The youngest of you is a mere 21—barely legal, while the most senior is five decades older. Age is only a number. What matters is the desire. The spark. The intrinsic motivation to keep asking and learning well beyond “school age.”

For every man graduating tonight, there are three women.  What’s this we’ve been hearing lately about “Leaning In?”  I reckon that this ratio is a sign that we are leveling our playing fields.

Amongst the graduates here tonight are OU staffers; one set of twins; and two married couples. Your scholarly activities range from Health to Design; Engineering to Organizations and Leadership; Teaching; Relating; Healing, Organizing and innovating.

The breadth of your fields are inspiring and lend meaning to the rambunctious democracy that gives us all the freedom to choose our way of life.

Wherever you go with your new degrees, I encourage you to continue using your intrinsic motivation as a pathway guide.

With a nod to a mentor of mine, Dr. Rachel Remen of the Institute for the Study of Health and Illness, I want to share the Parable of the Stone Cutters with you:

It’s a wonderful story about the power of meaning to change the experience of our work and our lives. Not to change the work itself but to change our experience of it.

Imagine that it is the Middle Ages and we are watching three stonecutters build a cathedral. As we watch these men working they are all doing exactly the same thing. People bring them rocks, they cut them into blocks, someone takes the block away, another rock is brought in and they cut it into a block, and that is taken away. They do this basic task over and over again.

After watching a while, we go up to the first man and ask, “What are you doing?” He turns on us with a real hostility and says, “Idiots, you can see what I’m doing. I am cutting rocks into blocks over and over again. I’ve been doing it from the moment I started working; I’ll do it till the day I die. Why are you asking me such a stupid question? Use your eyes!”

But when we go on to the second man and ask him what he is doing, he smiles at us. And he says, “I’m earning a living here for my beloved family. There’s good food on the table and a roof over our heads and the children are growing strong.”

Then we go on to the third man and ask what he is doing. He says, with deep satisfaction and joy, “Ah. I am building a great cathedral, a holy lighthouse, where people who are lost and frightened can come and remember that they are not alone. And it will stand for a thousand years.”

The moral of this story is that all three of these men are doing the same thing: they are cutting rocks into blocks over and over again. Bringing a sense of deep personal meaning into the most routine and ordinary of daily tasks can enable us to find in those tasks deep satisfaction and even gratitude for the opportunity to do the work.

I became a medical doctor out of a notion of wanting to help people and to give back to my communities and my country. I became a medical educator because I strongly believe in the virtue of lifelong learning. Teaching those that come after you is a surefire way to stay engaged in your practice and be on the cusp of new knowledge as it arises.

Seeing patients, teaching, studying, and raising a family keep me busy. And yet—there was a sense in my work that I was not reaching full capacity. I felt as though I’d formed ideas I wanted to share, but didn’t really have a platform upon which to share them.

A wise friend encouraged me to start a blog. “What’s a blog?” I asked him.

“What could I possibly have to say that’d be original or that anyone would want to read?”

I took the plunge. I looked into what blogs—really weblogs—essentially, electronic diaries—are, and I started one.

I sent a link to my family and friends. Then pretty much anyone I’ve ever known. Or had an email address for.

And then I kept going. Three years and counting. And the funny thing is, some people stuck with me. Right from the beginning. And More have joined in.

And blogging has given me a voice—one that helps me to be a more active citizen.

It’s not that my medical career wasn’t enough—indeed, it’s become the platform upon which I share my ideas—I was looking for a broader conversation—about things that don’t make sense, things that seem wrong or foolish, but also things that touch me, inspire me, or move me.

The act of writing gives me more ideas—a platform that builds upon itself. I’ve used some of those ideas to pitch editors and program directors—and have subsequently been published in magazines and been broadcast on radio. Medicine is my muse.

Communicating has become my passion. Package it together, and I call it something more: Engagement.

I look for engagement in my learners, colleagues, and leaders.

I want people not only engaged with the learning material, but also the system in which they learn. It’s important to have constructive feedback to continually improve our systems. Whether in education, health care, or commerce.

Whether you take on a formal or informal teaching role in your career or in life, know that those that teach inspire others and give themselves better health through the engagement process. Trust me on this one—I’m a doctor.

As for the elements of teaching, smarter folks than me have it boiled down to some simple principles:

Former Harvard medical school Dean Dan Federman proffered what he called his teaching triad:

  1. Keep it simple
  2. Think out loud (or what I refer to as “blogging”)
  3. Be kind

George Thibault, the director of the Josiah Macy Foundation offers his own adaptation on the pedagogy—making it even simpler. Parents—take note. In fact, kids, too:

  1. Listen
  2. Care
  3. Be other-directed

We could all stand to be listened to more. In much the same way, thinking about others as much as ourselves leads to a more sympathetic world.

One more story:

A few years ago some medical students asked me to lead them in an elective on “Social Aspects of Medicine in the U.S.”

One of our sessions involved a meeting and interview with the discoverer of erythropoietin, Eugene Goldwasser.

Professor Goldwasser considered patenting his discovery. It had taken 20 years of work to isolate the protein. (He later told me that with modern technology that two decades could’ve been compressed into perhaps a single year!)

But when he thought about it, he realized that his discovery had come through government research dollars—paid for by all of us—and that he could no sooner patent his discovery than one could patent the air we breathe or the water we drink.

Besides, he said, any practical implication of his discovery should be given back to the taxpayers.

Eventually, a company came along and cloned his molecule, changing it slightly and patenting it. It’s now marketed as a drug that’s brought in billions of dollars to its manufacturer.

Gene never lamented the riches that could’ve been his. He spent the rest of his life campaigning to lower the cost of the drug.

I met him after he retired. When I asked what an emeritus professor did all day, he told me—“not much.”

“Do you still do experiments?” I asked

“No, they took away my lab,” he lamented.

“Do you wish you could still do experiments? Do you still have ideas?”

“I dream about them every night,” he replied.

His words really stuck with me.

I was touched by this man who’d devoted his life to science, only to have his tools taken away in his dotage.

But in spite of his laments, what he showed me was his resilience and a broad sense of engagement. He still cared—deeply— about his work and his passions of music and art.

I knew when the time came and his last breath was taken that he had lived a full and meaningful life—and touched so many of those around him—both near home and across the world by his discoveries.

Tonight I want to congratulate you on your accomplishments—and wish you the success of continued engagement with your work and passions throughout life.

Thank you very much.


  1. mark levine

    Hi John,
    Very much enjoyed your speech and message of engagement. One thing I have learned over 40 years of practice is the never ending opportunity to learn and grow your intellect through engagement,interest in helping people, reading, and working hard. You are forced to think, be challenged,and adapt to help people while becoming a better physician. I don’t think many fields offer what medicine does.
    I too, do a blog which I enjoy doing. You can say what you want without a peer review and references.
    Sorry to hear about uncle Ronnie. Never took care of himself. A great guy with a good sense of humor. Best Mark

    • glasshospital

      Hi Mark-
      Thanks for taking a look!
      Great to hear from you and see what you’ve been up to.

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