Sunday, April 1, 2007

USC Honorary Degree: Who Should Be the Nominee?

In view of the fact that spring commencement is quickly approaching in May, I decided to take this opportunity to acknowledge an individual who I believe has greatly influenced the field of medicine and health, one particular focus of my blog, and who therefore would be a well-qualified nominee for an honorary degree at the University of Southern California. For those unfamiliar with this tribute, it is the award given during each annual commencement ceremony “to honor individuals who have distinguished themselves through extraordinary achievements," or contributions to others through their professions, philanthropies, or other activities, "whether or not they are widely known by the general public." According to James Freedman, president emeritus of the University of Iowa and Dartmouth College, in presenting this award, “a university makes an explicit statement to its students and the world about the qualities of character and attainment it admires most.” My nominee’s respective field of endeavor is quite appropriate to USC, seeing as this university is world-renowned in teaching and research, and is one of the leading research universities in the nation. Based on the above-mentioned requirements, I believe that the individual who most deserves this award is Wendy Harpham, M.D., pictured to the right.

Dr. Harpham graduated from the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry, and began her career in her own practice of internal medicine. She spent seven years tending to patients, before she was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. “Forced to redefine her career,” Harpham decided to turn to writing in order to support, reassure, and assist others in need. She realized she had a very unique perspective as both a physician and now a patient, and therefore extended her care from not only her own patients, but to cancer patients and their families, as well. Through her experiences with cancer, she has written numerous award-winning books, shown to the left, regarding the issues that surround cancer including diagnosis, recovery and survivorship, and raising children when a parent has cancer. Harpham's goal was to help people find happiness in difficult times, and strived to “educate, comfort, and inspire others.” She states, “I share my personal story not to teach people about me but to help them think about, talk about, and better understand what is happening to them. I hope that others can learn from my mistakes and successes, and more easily find what can work well for them.” On top of these remarkable measures, Harpham has written a column “View From the Other Side of the Stethoscope” for the magazine, Oncology Times, in which she discusses challenges that may occur in caring for cancer patients. In addition to writing, Harpham has been recognized for her influential speeches concerning similar issues such as educating oneself on the nature of cancer, coping with illness, finding hope, and embracing life after cancer. Put succinctly, “Dr. Harpham devotes her energy to helping survivors directly through her writing and speaking, and indirectly through her activities as a patient advocate.”

USC "welcomes nominations of persons with distinguished accomplishments," and in light of her achievements and personal triumph against cancer, Harpham presents an exceptional example of someone who should be honored with the degree of Doctor of Science. Not solely because she practices medicine and is a cancer survivor, for these triumphs are not uncommon, but for how she made good out of a bad situation. Harpham has turned adversity into something more positive, and that is by reaching out to others in similar difficult situations. The fact that she possesses this distinguishing “physician-patient” outlook enables her to make a unique difference in her field of work. As a "nominee of exceptional merit," Harpham also has a meaningful and relevant message to instill upon the graduating class at the commencement ceremony. Upon learning of her diagnosis, Harpham was compelled to re-evaluate her career, purpose, and path in life. This demonstrates how, realistically, no one knows what is in store for them; the future is unknown. One must be flexible, because even after years of work and pursuing a passion in a career, as these students have done thus far, certain life tribulations may occur unexpectedly that cause a change in how one must live life. This is a strong message for diverse individuals graduating from college, entering the “real world,” and embarking upon career interests and other adventures. Harpham could guide the students in understanding one perspective on life, which is that what they believe is their “calling” on this day might very well change or be altered by a course of events in the future, but that their flexibility in adjusting will show promise and strength of character.

Wendy Harpham might not have walked on the moon, as past recipient and USC alumnus Neil Armstrong has, and she might not be as well known as past recipient Stephen Spielberg, but she has more than met criteria for this honorary degree, which as Freedman puts it, should "celebrate distinguished and sublime achievement." Harpham is a doctor of internal medicine, cancer survivor, author, public speaker, patient advocate, and mother of three, who embodies many qualities known to the USC mascot, Tommy Trojan, including scholarly, courageous, and ambitious. Not only has she made commendable achievements in her field of medicine, but she exemplifies admired qualities through her teachings, humanitarian acts, and inspiration for the future. Harpham is widely respected and would make a proud and highly valued candidate for the 2007 USC honorary degree.

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