Embracing adversity and cultivating empathy: Alumnus inspires medical graduates

Eric B. Freeman, M’02, serves as speaker for 2022 School of Medicine Hooding Ceremony.

Eric B. Freeman, M’02, gave the commencement speech at the School of Medicine’s 2022 Hooding Ceremony on May 13.

By Jackie Kruszewski VCU School of Medicine jackie.kruszewski@vcuhealth.org

May 19, 2022

Friday was the culmination of years of hard work and dedication for 179 graduating medical students. But it was also, as the convocation speaker reminded them, the start of a career that demands attention to service, empathy and inequities.

“There are people and patients that you have not met yet who are counting on you to pour out the gift that lies within you,” said Eric B. Freeman, M’02, at the 2022 ceremony for graduates of the VCU School of Medicine. “The biggest impact and legacy that you can have with your time on this hallowed earth is to maximally discharge your gift of the practice of the healing arts in service and significance to others.”

Embrace adversity, cultivate empathy and work to end health disparities, he said to an audience of graduates, their families and friends at the Stuart C. Siegel Center on May 13. The new doctors sat where Freeman did 20 years ago, about to start his training as a pediatrician. And the inspiring speech reflected a career that has embodied the advice he gave to graduates.

“Being on this platform today brings back very fond memories of the greatest day of my life,” he said.

Born and raised in the Richmond area, Freeman graduated from Henrico High School in 1994 before pursuing a bachelor’s degree in biology at the College of William & Mary. After graduating with his M.D. from VCU in 2002, Freeman completed his residency training in general pediatrics at Shands Hospital at the University of Florida Health Services Center in 2005. He’s been a practicing pediatrician for 17 years. 

“I challenge each of you today,” Freeman told the graduates, “as we welcome you officially into the medical profession, to play your part in striving to work as hard as you can to influence the dissolution of any barrier that restricts us from equitable access and delivery of health care throughout our world. 

“I encourage each of you to look for areas of our communities where the greatest need exists. Go there and give of your time, talent and treasure.”

It is crucial for physicians, Freeman said, to acknowledge that systemic obstacles impeded access to health care in the past, and that inequities continue, especially for those from underrepresented and marginalized backgrounds. Freeman pointed to VCU studies showing life expectancies vary by ZIP code within the city of Richmond and across the nation.

“We can, we shall and we must do better,” he said.

In his own life, Freeman has been firmly committed to community service and driven by a desire to give back to his hometown. He opened Old Dominion Pediatrics in August 2012, where he serves as president and physician-in-chief. He is also a faculty member in the VCU School of Medicine and the adviser for undergraduates in the Black Men in Medicine program at VCU.

Freeman offered additional advice:

  • Don’t allow adversity to knock you off course. Setbacks in the coming years will serve a purpose and are necessary for growth and development. 
  • Always remember to be kind. “Empathy,” he said, “is a critical element to your success and sustainability as a physician.” Studies show empathetic clinicians not only have the best patient satisfaction but the most optimal patient outcomes. 
  • Empathy is a skill that requires constant refinement and attention. “You must be able to emotionally connect with your patients and their families. It is through that connection that you are able to create a space that facilitates your patient to be seen, to be heard, to be provided validation as a human being.” 
  • Remember your beginnings and reach back to help others. “Your presence here today is an amalgamation of prayers and investments in you from your parents, friends, teachers and community,” he said. Master your craft, but help others achieve their success along the way. 

Freeman himself is a prolific mentor, describing it as a labor of love. He’s a dedicated alumnus of the School of Medicine, frequently engaging with current students and serving on panels

“Go forth and show the world the quality and impressive finished product that we produce here in Richmond at our medical school,” Freeman said. “Go forth and make us proud.”

After Freeman’s speech, Interim Dean David Chelmow, M.D., announced the promotion of Freeman to clinical associate professor with a joint appointment in the Departments of Pediatrics and Family Medicine and Population Health.

The ceremony also featured remarks from Interim Dean Chelmow, Class President George Ibrahim, M’22, and associate deans of student affairs whose guidance was instrumental in graduates’ four-year journey on the MCV Campus.

“It is so nice to see you all together in person,” said Chris Woleben, M’97, H’01, associate dean for student affairs, who noted the prevalence of digital events during the graduates’ time in medical school – the latter half of which was marked by the COVID-19 pandemic.

This was the first hooding ceremony since 2019 where all graduates, their family and supporters were allowed to attend in person. The 2020 ceremony, soon after the pandemic began, was virtual only, and last year, well-wishers could only watch online.

Nicole Deiorio, M.D., associate dean of student affairs, acknowledged students who had won awards, including Shira Lanyi, M’22, who earned the Dean’s Award for Academic Achievement, recognizing her highest cumulative GPA during medical school. She benefited from scholarship assistance in medical school, holding the Joseph Collins Scholarship as well as being a four-time Aesculapian Scholarship recipient.

Students graduating with a military commission took the oath of office and were pinned by their family members on stage. And for the hooding, all students walked across the stage, where faculty leaders placed a hood representing their medical degree over their graduation gowns.

Chelmow administered the Declaration of Geneva, the physicians’ oath dedicating themselves to the humanitarian goals of medicine. That followed final remarks to put the graduates’ minds at ease about their upcoming residencies across the country.

“You, as VCU students, are 100 percent ready,” he said.

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