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NBC Correspondent Medicine Commencement Speaker
May 11, 2004

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NBC Medical Correspondent Dr. Kevin Soden addressed more than 80 candidates receiving doctor of medicine, master of family services, master of family therapy and master of public health degrees at the Mercer University School of Medicine Commencement, held May 1 on Mercer's Macon campus.


Soden, who appears regularly on NBC's "Today" show, is also the founder of the oldest, largest, physician-owned managed care organization in the Carolinas. He is the worldwide medical director for Texas Instruments and medical director for Celanese Corporation, a global chemicals company. An acclaimed author, he recently published The Art of Medicine: What Every Doctor Should Know.


His address to the graduates follows:


First of all, let me congratulate all of you graduating today. You have dedicated many years to reach the goal you've attained today. You…and Your Loved Ones, family and supporters…should be proud and I know that you will savor and enjoy every moment of this day.


The famous actor and comedian, George Burns, once said, "The secret of a good sermon is to have a good beginning and a good ending…and have the two as close together as possible." I'm sure you're all out there hoping that I'll take that same advice for my remarks today so I'll try not to disappoint you in that regard. 


Some of you may be wondering how you got stuck with a guy like me for a graduation speaker.  He's not a famous academic. He's not a politician (Thank God) nor has he made some important medical discovery…or so you thought. When I told my wife that I thought you might have had a physician-astronaut speak at graduation one time, she said that I'd fit right in since I was out in space half the time anyway.


I have been blessed to find healthcare in general and medicine in particular as my career. My patients and the people I've met have touched me, taught me and definitely changed me for the better. As you heard from the introduction, I've been an ER doctor for 25 years and a Medical Reporter on television for 20 years and am now on NBC's TODAY show. (My next story on the TODAY is on Memorial Day so I'll say "HI" to you again) My little daughters are 5 and 6 and still don't understand why Daddy doesn't wave to them. And by the way, Katie, Matt, Al and Ann send their congratulations to you and all their best wishes for the future. They said something like "Despite having to work with Kevin, we really do respect and appreciate physicians." I took that as a compliment.


So, here's my question for you, What do Medical Journalists and Physicians, Public Health professionals and Family Therapists Caring for Patients have in Common?


All of our jobs are about stories and story telling. As a journalist or a writer, when I interview a doctor or a patient, I have to first discover their story and then I have to be able to tell that story so that people can understand it, identify with it, and learn from it.


We all love a GOOD story because of the narrative quality of human experience: in a sense ANY story is about ourselves, and a GOOD story is good because somehow it rings true to human life. Why have shows like Seinfeld, Friends, Frazier or ER been so popular? Because we recognize elements of OURSELVES or people we know in those shows. (As an ER doctor, I'd prefer to think of myself more like a George Clooney or Noah Wylie type but my family will tell you I'm more like Kramer on Seinfeld.)


Back to storytelling…As physicians, public health professionals or family therapists, your job is to get your patient's real story no matter how difficult. The key to being a great doctor or a great health care professional rather than an average one is being able to really hear what is being said by those you care for, see what others miss, and ask the probing questions that really help your patients or clients to open up and share how a particular disease or process has affected their lives. An oft-quoted statistic is that Making a diagnosis can be done 70% just by taking a good history. Let the patient tell their story.


Along that line, let me tell you a story about a lesson that I learned early in medical school at the Univ of Florida – Jack Londano and seeing the patient on Introduction to Medicine rounds. As a TV journalist and a doctor, I've gone in to see someone at times with a preconceived notion about what to expect but and have had those expectations blown away by really listening to what the person being interviewed had to tell me and completely changed my story. Please don't make a similar mistake but keep yourself open to what your patient's are really trying to tell you. After all, it's their story.


As you heard, I wrote a book called The Art of Medicine: What Every Doctor and Patient Should Know. I wrote the book in the form of a novel or story so it would keep the attention of most medical students and healthcare professionals. It's got everything a good book should have – murder, mystery, sex, humor --- you name it. Prior to writing the book, I interviewed some of the best teachers in America as voted on by medical students like you and wanted to know what kept them in love with the practice of medicine. In the process, I learned some extremely important lessons about life and about keeping the fun in your varied healthcare practices alive.  I'd like to share them with you today.


You've all have heard of Letterman's Top 10. Well it's time to share with you my important discovery that I mentioned to you earlier. They're called Soden's 7 Secrets for Successfully Keeping the Fun in Your Life…and Your Practice.



1. Always seek a mission in life that is grounded in a higher good and service to others.   (You are doing that by choosing the various professions that you all represent today)



Dr. Robert Schuller says it better than I could ever do: "Success is building self-esteem in yourself and others through service...goal setting must arise out of problems that call for solutions, needs that must be filled, and hurts that cry for healing."


When I would work in the ER, I always felt the best when I knew I'd made a difference in those I'd seen. It's not about what you do but about how you feel when you are doing something. I call it "Emotional Equity". We don't become healthcare professionals for the money or prestige but for the "emotional equity" – that special feeling that we have done something good for another person.


When Alan Bean, a NASA astronaut who flew the Apollo 12 and Skylab 2 missions, was asked what he thought the key to success was, he answered by saying--


          The most important quality of successful people is that they have a dream:

         And that they think about and work toward that dream every day.


What is your dream? What makes you feel the best? (Dr. Tribble's surgery story)


Stephen Covey in his famous book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People says, 'Start with the End in mind.' We have to have a vision of what we want because if there's no single focus, then it would be like a tug of war in which everyone's pulling in different directions, you'll never get much accomplished. Discover your dream and work toward it every day.



2. You have two ears and one mouth – Use them in proportion


The great physician educator, Sir William Osler, said that "Listening and not imitation is the greatest form of flattery."


Why is communication or listening to your patients so important? Doctors who are poor communicators are viewed as LESS truthful, less caring, less honest, and less competent. Another reason, 75% of the time, the root cause of all malpractice suits is communication problems. Focus on the Art of Medicine by becoming a good communicator and a good listener and you will all gain the "emotional equity" I talked about to sustain us all when we are tired and wornout.


It's not only the most important thing that you can do for your patients but also for those that you love – spouse, children or significant others. LISTEN to them. Take the time to focus your entire attention on them and truly listen to what they are trying to tell you.



3. Exercise regularly and Take Care of yourself


"Take Care" of Yourself.  It's a phrase we hear and use all the time, but how well do we really take care of ourselves?


Regularly examine how you feel emotionally, mentally and physically and if problems, take corrective action. (Mind, Body and Spirit)


-Walk the Talk – you lose credibility with your patients, those you work with, and family members when you don't practice what you preach


-Dr. Osler's comment – "Walk Your Dog, Even If You Don't Have One"


- My last comment about caring for yourself…Find something your passionate about and work at it…outside your job or practice. We all need down time. Recreation means to "recreate" yourself. If it's not fun, why are you doing it. (Story of my father and playing golf) Remember…All work and no play makes Jack or Jill have Burnout…and then you're no good to anyone.



4. Sharks Constantly Move or They Die


Look at the older people that you know…whether family or friends. Which are the one's most alive and have found the way to keep that "joie de vivre" or joy of living intact? The simple answer…those that remained curious and continued to grow.


When I graduated from medical school, we had no MRI or PET scans, none of the most commonly used antibiotics we have today, laporascopic surgery was unheard of except in dreams of the future and HMOs were some crazy thing only found in California. Oh, how times have changed.  I can see some of you out there wondering, "My God, how old is this guy."


NOT Keeping up with the changes in medicine is easy to do but it will happen to all of us if we aren't careful and we don't continue learning. It's called Continuing Medical Education for a reason. Keep working at your profession for yourself…and your patient's sake.


Leonardo da Vinci was perhaps the greatest thinker of all time and when he was asked why that was so…he said that it was because he was curious about all things. Maintain your curiosity all your life and look for creative ways to grow.


5. Laugh Often and Loudly…Especially at Yourself


Keep laughter and fun in all you do. Why? No life is stress free or without problems.


"A person without humor is like a wagon without springs…you feel every bump in the road."


Humor is our way of coping with the stress in life. Learn to use it for yourself and your patients.It's one reason why medicine has such offbeat humor in emergency rooms and operating rooms.


When people who survived horrible situations like war, concentration camps, disasters were interviewed, they found some common traits among these survivors – chief among them was a Sense of Humor. Abe Lincoln, Winston Churchill, and Ronald Reagan were all great leaders who possessed and knew the importance of humor in keeping things in perspective. (Lady Astor and Winston Churchill stories)


Remember: "Angels can fly because they take themselves so lightly."


6. Seek help from a Higher Power


Besides a sense of humor, survivors of concentration camps, various disasters, and wars reported a couple of other survival traits – one being a Belief in a Higher Power. There is an old saying that came out of our great World Wars of the 20th century, "There are no Aetheists in foxholes." This is true not only in wartime but it's also true when people believe they are dying. They almost always turn to a Supreme Being for help.


Research clearly indicates that people who are spiritual (not necessarily religious) do better when faced with serious health conditions than those withOUT a spiritual support.


Any good marriage has humor and a Belief in a Higher Power at its core as we all have to laugh at each other and not take the little things too seriously. My sweet wife often says about me, "You're the answer to my prayers. You're not what I prayed for but your what God sent me." (I think she meant that as a compliment.)


Now, my final point, the # 1 factor in Soden's 7 Secrets for Success


7. Work at the Relationships that are Most Important to You…EVERY Day.


When people were surveyed about when they felt the "Best in Their Life" – When they were the most Alive. The # 1 answer that was given by far was when they had a Fulfilling Relationship or relationships in their life. When you first fall in love with someone, how do you feel? Nothing bothered you, did it? You were on top of the world.


So how do you maintain those loving feelings in your life? It takes two things to maintain a relationship – TIME and ENERGY. So what mistake do I often see   MANY busy doctors and health care professionals make? We NEGLECT those we say we love the most. Can you know your kids if you don't spend TIME with them and really listen to what they are saying to you? How does your spouse know if you love her or him if you don't put time and energy into the relationship?


What do you need to do? Take stock every day. Tune in to how you're feeling. Pay special attention to the feelings of those people that provide energy in your life and love in your life. Remember that it's the people in our lives that give meaning to life and make life worth living.


No one I've ever met who was dying or seriously ill ever said to me, "I wish I'd spent more time at the office." They always talk about the time they wasted doing stupid things and not spending time with people.


I'd like to ask you to remember the little essay written by an 80 year-old lady called Picking Daisies. You may have heard bits and pieces of it but let me remind you what it says in part:





What this little old lady is trying to tell us so in her special way is that Life is Not about the number of breaths you take but about the moments that take your breath away.





This is my wish for each of you. Thank you again for letting me come along for the ride and being part of your celebration. It's been an honor and privilege for me.