Life lessons from honorary degree recipient Elizabeth Eisenhauer
“Understand your why.” That’s Dr. Elizabeth Eisenhauer's most important life lesson to 2023 graduates.
The award-winning researcher, alumni (Medicine ’76), and former professor was awarded an honorary degree at Queen’s University’s first spring convocation on Friday, May 26. Below is an edited transcript of her prepared remarks to graduates at the event:
I am grateful and very humbled to receive this honorary degree – from my own alma mater – some 47 years after I was sitting in this same setting awaiting my own MD convocation.
I begin by offering thanks: Firstly to my nominators, Drs. Richard Reznick and Chris Simpson. Your support for me over the years here at Queen’s has been so very appreciated. Secondly, I thank my early mentors in oncology and clinical research – Drs. Peter Galbraith, David Ginsburg, and Joe Pater. Deep thanks as well goes to the amazing teams I have been part of over the years – countless scientists, investigators, clinicians in organizations across Canada and internationally. I also acknowledge the funding continuously received since 1980 from the Canadian Cancer Society, which made our work possible.
As is usually the case, the narrative of one’s life is best understood looking backwards. When I began my clinical career, I had no grand plan – aside from a passion for medicine and seizing the opportunities that came my way. My story, like many, and like that of today’s graduates, is characterized by many endings – which were also new beginnings.
When I completed postgraduate specialty training in oncology, Dr. Pater gave me the opportunity to work at the Canadian Cancer Trials Group based at Queen’s. With a small team here and working with clinicians across the country, I conducted clinical trials testing of promising new cancer drugs in patients. Although the initial plan was to spend two to three years in that role, it was my home for 30 years. During that time there were many “endings and beginnings” – each trial ending made way for a new one to begin. Some of those endings were disappointing – the treatment we tested made no impact – but an important few led to findings that identified new treatments of benefit to patients. New beginnings for patients.
Engaging in collaborative clinical research expanded my interests and led to leadership opportunities in Canada and abroad. Although I was taught that my primary role as a physician was to help the patient sitting in front me, I grew to understand it was just as important to consider how to benefit patients more broadly through research, and through improving both research and health care systems.
But enough about my story. I will use my final minutes addressing the most important people in the room today. Congratulations graduates! You are at an inflection point as well. The ending of your education and the beginning of your next adventures.
We celebrate your amazing accomplishments today. You have completed your studies during the pandemic of the century – no mean feat for you, or for your teachers who found creative solutions to ensure your educational needs were met, despite the risks and challenges of the past years.
As this stage of your education ends, you carry our hopes for the future in you. Hope that will propel you forward through the challenges of your first position or postgraduate training. Hope that you will not only strive for the best for the patient or client in front of you, but that you will use your position of privilege to bring change for good to the communities in which you will work. For you are indeed privileged to have been born in a time and place that, along with your dedication and work, has led you to graduate today.
There remain many challenges ahead for you – in medicine, we hear daily of the stress and workload. In society, more broadly, it sometimes seems that destructive rhetoric has replaced reason, respect, and kindness. But you should feel confident in facing challenges – you have already shown you have the talent, knowledge, and tools to succeed. If I may offer some advice, from just a few life lessons I learned along the way:
- Collaborative, not individual efforts, are always more productive. And being part of a team gives you a community to lean into when going gets tough.
- Take risks to do new things - if the opportunity will bring meaning to you.
- Be Kind
- Take time to listen to others, not always filling the void with your own voice
- Most importantly, understand your "why" – Why you are doing the work you do? What grounds you and gives you purpose?
My personal “why” brings me to conclude my remarks by circling back to gratitude once more:
Firstly to patients, including my mother Edith and my sister Carla, who died too soon and taught me much about suffering and grace. Wanting to improve lives of patients propelled me to do to the work I did. I have immense gratitude to the thousands of patients who volunteered to be part of the clinical trials I led.
My second why is family. I am grateful to my parents who never questioned the aspirational goal of a 9-year-old girl to go into medicine and supported me along that path. They raised three daughters who become Queen’s medicine grads – I’m so happy my sister Mary is here today. I’m very thankful to my husband Dr. Brian Kain who has walked beside me with support and love all the 52 years we have shared together. And I am especially thankful for my two girls, Danielle and Nicole Kain and their families– you continue to surprise me with joy.
Graduates: my hope for you is to embrace challenges head on, take risks, and most importantly find your own meaning in the years ahead.