Former AOA president to med school graduates: ‘Care’ makes you a great doctor

Dr. Karen Nichols has reached the pinnacle in the osteopathic medical field — she’s dean of the Midwestern University/Chicago College of Osteopathic Medicine and former president of the American Osteopathic Association.

Yet in her role as commencement speaker for Campbell University’s Jerry M. Wallace School of Osteopathic Medicine commencement ceremony at the Pope Convocation Center Thursday, Nichols shared that her success — and the one ingredient that can make any good doctor a great doctor — revolves around caring.

“The secret to caring for the patient … is caring for the patient,” Nichols said, borrowing a 1925 quote from Harvard physician Dr. Francis W. Peabody. “Your patients don’t care what you know until they know that you care.”

Her message was delivered to 152 members of the medical school’s third graduating class and 27 Master of Science in Biomedical Sciences graduates. Launched in 2013, the medical school has now graduated more than 450 physicians, many of whom have chosen to remain in North Carolina or have sought careers in other medically underserved parts of the United States.

Care is the backbone of Campbell’s mission to prepare students for purposeful lives and meaningful service. Nichols shared three stories to Thursday morning’s graduates about times when caring made a difference in the lives of her patients. The first came during her third year of medical school, during rotations. A woman had just died in the emergency room from a massive heart attack, and Nichols followed the cardiologist into the waiting room to observe as he told the family.

“The doctor told the husband and their two sons, ‘We did everything we could, but we’re sorry. She’s deceased,’” Nichols recalled. “They shook hands, and the doctor left. The father then looked at me and asked, ‘But is she going to make it?’ They didn’t know what ‘deceased’ meant. I decided then that I’d always strive to make sure I was communicating effectively with my patients. Effective communication is an important part of care.”

Her second story involved a patient of Nichols’ colleague who would not go into surgery without a “Dr. Chad” by her side. The surgeon had to dig, but eventually learned Dr. Chad was one of his students, and the empathy he used in his care of that patient had a huge impact on her. And her third example was a story from her time as a private practice family physician in Arizona. She had a couple who moved three hours away, yet still made the drive to visit her office because they trusted her.

“That level of integrity and honesty with your patients is another important part of caring,” Nichols said. “It’s easier to have integrity 100 percent of the time than it is to have it 98 percent of the time. Your decisions are easier to make if they’re all made with integrity and honesty.”

In his comments to the graduates, President J. Bradley Creed congratulated them on taking the road less traveled. “Academic medicine is one of the most competitive things to be accepted into,” he said. “When I was a freshman in college, it seemed every third person I met was a pre-med major. When I was a senior, I knew only two. Those of you here are skilled and gifted, and you have persevered and stayed focused. You’ve taken the arduous road.”

Dr. Barbara Walker, a member of the American Osteopathic Association and Campbell University board of trustees, shared with the assembled crowd that the osteopathic physician profession grew by 12 percent in the last year. Much like Nichols’ assertion that “care” is the key to proper medical care, Walker said what sets Campbell physicians apart is their ability to “love.”

“To the skeptics in the back who ask, ‘Well, what if love can’t always treat every illness?’ I say to that, ‘You increase the dose,’” Walker said. “You’ve been taught to expand your mind. To look for differentials. To listen and hear the pain in someone’s words. You’ve been taught to use your hands to heal and to diagnose. So I challenge you to also be willing to treat with love and to never be afraid to increase the dose.”

Graduate Emilie Pinto said she’s known from Day 1 that there was something special at Campbell University’s med school.

“I knew I would get an amazing education; what I didn’t know was that I would leave with a family,” Pinto said. “Each and every one of us has contributed to the legacy the Class of 2019 will leave — the foundation for the classes yet to come — and that is something to be celebrated.”