I’d like to start by briefly talking about why I wanted to be a part of UNC and how the values, character, and community that embody the school of medicine are reflected in why we are gathered here today.
When I decided to come to UNC, I had an image in my head of the character and community that I believed existed at the School of Medicine here in Chapel Hill. My brother was an undergrad and medical student here, and my wife along with 31 other relatives all drank from the Old Well. This includes my 99-year-old grandmother, who graduated from one of the first co-ed classes in 1933. That image I had was of a national leader in clinical medicine and public medical education. I sensed that UNC was made up of collaborative and collegial teams of doctors, nurses, technicians, administrators, faculty and students and that this environment grew out of the nature of our 223-year-old university and that teamwork was highly supported by leadership from the top down.
After ten years as a pilot in the Air Force, I’ve learned a thing or two about leadership, and equally important, though less emphasized, teamwork. I've experienced how good leaders and great teams accomplish amazing feats and save lives on a daily basis. I’ve learned this on C-130 missions in the unforgiving landscapes of Afghanistan and Iraq. These missions are strangely not unlike what goes on daily in the wards, clinics and ORs down the street.
Our missions involved a crew of highly trained technical experts: The navigator routed us around terrain, enemy positions, and to our landing or drop zone. The engineer manned complicated aircraft systems. The co-pilot—well, the co-pilot is kind of like a medical student, not so mission-essential. My favorite position, the loadmaster, handled cargo on and off load, not just on the ground, but also in the air when we airdropped supplies, paratroopers, special forces, Humvees, or tanks to forward-deployed forces. The pilot and aircraft commander operated the controls (a technical skill), analyzed the conditions, aircraft performance, and intel (judgment-driven skills), managed the crew (a people skill), and made the decisions. All of this takes place in a stressful, potentially life-altering environment where technical skill and judgment as well as team dynamics are crucial.
For these reasons, I often compare the cockpit environment and dynamics to the operating room. Most surgeons don't really like this at first, but I did spend two years in the OR as a technician, and while that certainly doesn't qualify me as a surgeon, I don't know any surgeons who’ve flown an aircraft into a blacked-out, bomb-cratered runway in Afghanistan while under enemy fire and with a smoking engine, so bear with me for a minute.
The technical skills are certainly different as is the knowledge base. But the risk analysis and team dynamics are akin. A physician, like a pilot, can fly solo, but is that really better for the patient, the mission? As physicians, you know that if you are working with the A team, your job will run more smoothly, more efficiently, more safely, and most likely result in better outcomes and less errors than if you are on a team with poor dynamics.
Physicians have to manage personalities, egos (including their own), technology, weak links, and at times incredible risk—all while being a surrogate for the patient’s best interests as the hospital looks over your shoulder. And this is true outside the OR, in the clinics, the labs, and to a more and more simulated degree, in the incredibly dynamic environment that the classroom has become. We are only as good as our weakest member, and elevating one strengthens us all. When we deliver success, it’s success that we all share in.
So back to my image of UNC as Erin and I prepared to move across the country from Jayhawk nation to Tar Heel heaven. I have to say that I underestimated and certainly didn’t completely understand how the vision, leadership, and incredible people at UNC have created an environment that is so productive. A community of health care professionals and patients that is so inspiring to be a part of and so welcoming to its team members. I'm grateful for that….I’m grateful for the family that welcomes you when you become a UNC medical student.
When I was accepted into school at UNC, I told Dean Bashford that my wife was paying the bills and her job search had a lot more to do with where we ended up than with where I wanted to be. He scoured the University for job prospects for her…that’s something family does. When we had complications surrounding the birth of our child four months ago, Dean Dent and the faculty helped by giving me time and space from school. Helping you take care of your priorities in life is something family does. If we, as students, do our part as future UNC graduates, the family that is UNC medical school takes care of us.
And that sense of family and commitment couldn’t be more evident with the named scholarships that we acknowledge today. From the Medical Alumni Affairs office, to the Medical Foundation, and to the incredibly generous alumni, family, and donors whose foresight, success, and love of UNC make all of this possible—you all have created an enduring community that goes well beyond four years of medical school. This community is something much more than just the monetary donations that fuel it. The family into which you welcome us as scholarship recipients is an integral part of a lifelong connection to UNC.
There are many ways in which the Shirley F. Thomas and Colin G. Thomas, Jr MD Scholarship impacts my experience. First, financing medical school is stressful. It’s a burden that doesn’t just go away. And it’s on the minds of students with every purchase we make and every bill we pay. So just from a numbers standpoint, when you compare a $10,000 scholarship today to a $10,000 federal loan, paid back over ten years from graduation at current rates, that scholarship is worth over $16,500 over time.
Dan Green, where are you? Last year when I sat down to dinner at Carolina Brewery with Dan, who was an out-of-state student at the time, with a bevy of loans, he looked at his bill as he laid down his credit card and said, “This isn't just $20 (mainly of beer), I’ve got to add in interest over the next 14 years or so.” Dan, I did the math, and that $20 meal, assuming you tipped him, will actually cost you $39.75 over 14 years at an unsubsidized 6.8%. I hope our time together was worth it.
Dan and the rest of us students here today don't have to think about that as much this year. While your monetary donations fuel the fire of the scholarship program, the legacy you are leaving has a much greater impact. Ten years from now, my wife, Erin, will remember the times that I actually took her out to dinner, pulled out my wallet, and payed unleveraged, unencumbered 0% interest cold cash from my pocket…..thanks to the foresight and generosity of Dr. Colin Thomas. I enjoyed the meal much more too. It felt good to bring home a tiny slice of bacon….
Dr. Thomas, that $10,000 steak in Las Vegas was amazing, but Erin and I will remember ten years from now when we actually have extra money lying around at the end of the month. We will remember your generosity and how it made our lives a little bit more enjoyable, a little bit less stressful…. And then our check to the scholarship fund and future students will be a little bit larger.
But the greatest gift of your legacy and commitment to funding our education is something less tangible, something more meaningful now and in the long run. And that is a bit of freedom…Freedom of choice. Freedom to exclude financial burden to varying degrees from our choice of a career. You can't put a price tag on this kind of freedom. Finances matter, and it's better if we don't ignore that. It’s better if we don't ignore that an education fully funded by financial aid, which is over 90% loans, is a burden of over $150,000 that sticks with graduating students for over a decade.
And the problem of financing education, while lower at UNC compared to our neighbors and to the rest of the nation, is not getting better. More loans from the federal government are not the solution. That financial burden is on the mind of 3rd and 4th year students as they finalize their decisions on residency. Physicians are paid differently and that factors in to making a lifelong career decision. In my mind, it should, especially with the time invested and the amount of debt medical students are facing. Does this deter someone from their true calling—limiting their impacts on their community, their family and not realizing their potential. Your scholarships impact this all-important decision. With these scholarships, that burden is diminished and, for some, absent. And that is truly a gift on which I cannot put a price.
So to Dr. Thomas, and to your wife Shirley, I want thank you, Sir, for welcoming me to this family. I want to thank you for supporting my ability to focus on Erin and Hawken, on my education, and on my calling. To all the donors, alumni, and family, to the Medical Alumni office, and to the Medical Foundation, I want to thank you for creating a community that works together to inspire the next generation of physicians to leave a legacy as you all have done. I want to thank you for your generosity, vision, and successes, because it will make ours even greater.
Finally, to my fellow students, I look forward to what we will accomplish in the future together, in the trenches that are the ICU, on the blood soaked fields that are the OR, and— who knows—maybe on the bombed-out runways that are Kibera, Malawi and the corners of the world that need us to work together and to be leaders in their community, and never forget how we got here and just where we came from.