In a speech that would have been made for a stirring commencement address, Dr. Pedro “Joe” Greer Jr. told the medical educators and students attending the Gold Humanism Honor Society's biennial meeting in Rosemont, Ill., that “there's nothing we can't accomplish if we're willing not to take the credit for it.”
Greer, who was the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” in 1993 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009
, is the assistant dean for academic affairs and chairman of the Department of Humanities, Health and Society at Florida International University's Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine in Miami. The title of his Saturday morning keynote address was "Why We Should ... Save the World!"
He began by noting the next generation of Americans may be the first in U.S. history to be less educated and have a shorter lifespan than the generation before, and he concluded with a call to action.
"It's fun to make great change," Greer said. "Don't wait for Washington, don't wait for your state capitols, we can do things locally."
As an example, Greer told the story of how he founded the Camillus Health Concern and St. John Bosco Clinic, which serve Miami's poor. Early in his career, Greer said he had planned to provide healthcare in a Third World country "where they really needed doctors" only to learn of the problems in his own backyard during his unsuccessful attempts to find the family of a homeless man under his charge in the intensive-care unit.
"Back then, I was young and stupid, now I'm no longer young," Greer said, as he told the story of how the city of Miami tried to hold up opening of the clinic until he paid $15,000 for sidewalk repairs. Greer recalled how he responded by threatening to go to the media about how the city allowed the homeless to sleep on the broken sidewalk, but wouldn't allow them to walk across it to get healthcare.
In his role as the founder of the school's Department of Humanities, Health and Society, he was tasked with developing a curriculum on the ethical foundations of medicine, and he joked about how that wasn't an easy assignment.
"I live in Miami, we don't have that many people who can spell 'ethical,'" Greer said.
Founded 10 years ago by Dr. Arnold and Sandra Gold, the Gold Foundation and Humanism Honor Society recognizes medical school students, residents and physician teachers for "demonstrated excellence in clinical care, leadership, compassion and dedication to service.” The foundation promotes professionalism among medical students with its white coat ceremonies welcoming them into the healthcare field.
"The white coat should mean something," Greer said, telling students they need to "take the lead" in promoting ethics and values in healthcare.
Greer closed by reading a passage from his book “Waking Up In America: How One Doctor Brings Hope to Those Who Need It Most”—which he said his mother and three aunts bought the only copies that were sold. He told of his encounter with a hungry 6-year-old boy at the clinic. He recalled how he offered the boy his sandwich and, after taking a few bites, the boy wrapped it up and put it in his pocket to take to his brothers who were just as hungry.
"You know what I want to be when I grow up? That 6-year-old child," Greer said. "I want to be able to think of others before I think of myself. Why should we save the world? Because someone has to."