May 18, 2009

Class of 2009 Encouraged to Build Bridges as They Embark Upon the Next Phase of Their Lives


David Satcher, M.D., Ph.D., the 16th Surgeon General of the United States, and the former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, encouraged more than 2,000 graduating students, as well as their family and friends, to reflect upon the "bridges of our lives" during Sunday's Commencement Convocation. An abstract of his speech is available below.

The Bridges of Our Lives

Presented by:

David Satcher, M.D., Ph.D.

Director, Satcher Health Leadership Institute at Morehouse School of Medicine


To President Barbara Snyder, members of the Board of Trustees, other administrators, faculty, staff, and students. I offer special greetings to the Class of 2009 and to members of your family and friends who are gathered here to join in this very important celebration in your lives. This is a great occasion in your lives and the life of Case Western Reserve University and its community. It was almost 40 years ago that I had a similar experience graduating here, but I still get excited whenever I think of it.

At the age of two, I was ill with whooping cough (pertussis) and pneumonia. My earliest memory in life is the memory of struggling to breath after each cough that characterizes this disease. Because of a combination of poverty, lack of education, racism, and segregation in Anniston, Alabama at that time, we did not have access to health care. My parents had lost a child to whopping cough the previous year, so they were well aware of the implications of my condition. My father went to town seeking help, and found the only black doctor who served in Anniston at that time. The next day (on his off day) Dr. Jackson came out to the farm to visit me; he made an important house call. As he was leaving, Dr. Jackson warned my parents that he did not expect me to live; however, he did instruct them how to make me comfortable and to give me the best chance of survival. So I survived, and my mother would tell me this story almost every day, so that when I was five years old, my one true desire was to meet Dr. Jackson. My parents promised me that for my sixth birthday they would take me to town to meet Dr. Jackson. I looked forward to it but I was unable to meet him because during that year, at the age of 54, Dr. Jackson died of a massive stroke. By the time I turned six years old, I was telling anyone who would listen, that I was going to be a doctor-just like Dr. Jackson, although at that time, no one in my family had completed high school. But I was as certain of that as I have been about anything in my life.


Today, I look back on my career in Medicine and Public Health that has included serving as President of two Medical Colleges (Morehouse School of Medicine and Meharry Medical College), Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Surgeon General, and Assistant Secretary for Health. I do not take for granted the opportunities that I have had to serve in medicine, public health, and in other roles of leadership in this country over that last 30 years. I am very aware and very grateful for all of the support that I have received along the way.

This brings me to my messages for you today. I have three brief messages and all of them relate to "the bridges of our lives."

  • Never forget the bridges that brought you to this point in your life. This will include parents, grandparents, and even ancestors you may never have met, but who had a dream for you.
  • As you leave today, be sure to take the right bridge to the future. As James Russell said, "One of the most difficult lessons to learn is which bridges to cross and which ones to burn."
  • You must now become a bridge builder, helping to prepare the way for those who will come behind you.


We need to leave those that come behind us a better world. We need to leave them an economy that is sustainable, nationally and globally. We need to leave them a health system that is balanced and that serves everyone with access to quality health care. We need to leave them an educational system that encourages all of our students to make the best of themselves. We need to leave them a global community where people are able to live at peace. Those are my messages for you today. Don’t forget the bridges that brought you to this point. Be sure to take the right bridges to the future. You and I have the responsibility to build bridges for others to cross.

Posted by: Kimyette Finley, May 18, 2009 02:41 PM | News Topics: Alumnet, Alumni, Commencement, Students

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