May 16, 1997

Journey ends for ’97 graduates

Journey ends for '97 graduates

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Thomas Tran ended part of a long voyage when he accepted his medical school diploma from Dean John Chapman at last week's commencement.

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School of Medicine graduating seniors helped turn Alumni Lawn into a sea of mortar and tassles last week.

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Last week, Dr. Roscoe Robinson oversaw his final commencement ceremony as Vice Chancellor for Health Affairs

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Dr. John Chapman, Dean of the School of Medicine, saluted the graduating class.

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(TOP) Founder's Medals were awarded to Michelle Bass-Goldin, (left) School of Medicine, and Sharon Heinrich, School of Nursing.(BOTTOM) At graduation, Dr. Joseph Ross, Associate Vice Chancellor for Health Affairs, was named professor of Medicine, Emeritus.

Last week, Thomas Hien Dieu Tran ended part of a 23-year journey when he walked across the stage of Langford Auditorium and received his medical degree from Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.

As a four-year-old child in Vietnam, he survived polio, but was left with a leg that would never grow to its normal size.

Five years later, he and part of his family were loaded aboard a fishing boat headed for a refugee camp in Thailand.

His parents and five siblings were split apart in two groups for the voyage. He left with his father, older sister and older brother. The rest of the family came four years later. It was a nightmarish experience.

The boat was attacked four times. The engine gave out. The refugees ran out of food and water as the boat drifted at sea. Tran's mother died several years later in a refugee camp before all of the family could make it to the United States. Eventually, most of them came to Mobile, Ala., where they tried to carry on with their lives.

A major phase of that journey ended last week as Tran, now 27, became one of 100 graduates of Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. He will leave this week to continue his journey, this time to Dallas, where he will begin a residency in pediatrics at Southwestern Medical Center.

Tran's father, brother, sisters and other family friends and relatives watched as Tran crossed the stage of Langford Auditorium to receive his diploma. They cheered, then followed him with a video and still camera outside on the plaza as he spoke with friends and well-wishers. It was a day none of them could have imagined back in 1979 after the fall of Saigon.

"Some memories are pretty vivid, but I don't remember the minute details of the treacherous journey," he said. "I was only 9. We were lucky to have survived. Many people perished on those trips."

Jo Hicks, who Tran calls his "adopted mother," and her husband, Marshall, called Tran's graduation a very emotional day.

Jo Hicks was introduced to Tran when he was in the 11th grade at Shaw High School in Mobile and in need of a job. She managed a restaurant and was told that Tran was a "cripple" because of his post-polio limp.

"It soon became evident that there was nothing he couldn't do. He was the high school valedictorian. And look at him now. He's a remarkable young man and I get very emotional just talking about him," she said.

Dr. John E. Chapman, dean of the School of Medicine, told Tran and the other graduates that the day was indeed emotional. The program of recognition at Langford was his 30th at Vanderbilt. Chapman said he never tires of the ceremony.

"It is new every year. It's as fresh today as it was 30 years ago," he said. "There's a remarkable outpouring of emotion that occurs on this stage."

Chris Sonnenday, the fourth-year class president, was experiencing a great deal of emotion himself as he walked across the stage and was presented his diploma by his 82-year-old grandfather, Dr. Robert Shank, visiting professor of Preventive Medicine. Sonnenday accepted the diploma, then embraced Shank as the audience applauded.

Shank, the former chairman of the department of preventive medicine at Washington University in St. Louis, has been Sonnenday's role model.

"It's such a privilege to receive my degree from my grandfather," Sonnenday said. "He's had such a wonderful career and has affected people from all over the world. It's an honor to carry on his legacy. I hope I can affect only a fraction of the people he has."

Sonnenday wasn't the only graduate receiving his degree from a family member.

Neeraja Boyapati received her diploma from her brother, Dr. Madhav Boyapati, a member of last year's graduating medical school class. Margaret Bradford Pendergrass Sanders received hers from her father, Dr. Henry Pendergrass, emeritus professor of Radiology. Gurprett Kaur Thind was given her diploma by both her mother, Dr. Rajinder Thind, visiting professor of Pediatrics, and father, Dr. Gurdarshan Thind, visiting professor of Medicine.

Chancellor Joe B. Wyatt conferred the physician's degrees during a combined university commencement ceremony on Alumni Lawn. Medical School graduate Michelle Terry Bass-Goldin was awarded the Founder's Medal for superlative academic achievement.

In the separate recognition ceremony at Langford, Chapman was assisted in awarding diplomas by Dr. Deborah C. German, associate dean of students. Dr. Roscoe R. Robinson, vice-chancellor for Health Affairs, presented academic hoods and university colors, assisted by Dr. Gerald S. Gotterer, associate dean for the School of Medicine.

The medical class of 1997 chose Dr. Corey M. Slovis, professor and chairman of Emergency Medicine, to present the names of the medical students. Slovis was the recipient of the 1997 Shovel Award for excellence in teaching. Dr. Robert D. Collins, professor of Pathology, was chosen by the class to lead them in reciting the Oath of the Physician.

This year's graduating class came from 30 states and Canada. Forty-three percent of the class were women. They were identified from an applicant pool that numbered 6,019 in size. Twenty percent of the class will stay at Vanderbilt for internships.

Some class members received two degrees.

Elizabeth Tyler-Kabara received both her medical degree and a Ph.D in molecular physics and biophysics. The degrees were earned in seven years.

"It doesn't seem so long when you walk away with two degrees," said 29-year-old Tyler-Kabara, who will head to the University of Pittsburgh for a seven-year neurosurgery residency.

Tyler-Kabara's husband, Joseph, received his Ph.D. in engineering on Alumni Lawn as she received her degree at Langford.

The two celebrated their fourth wedding anniversary the day before graduation. Tyler-Kabara said although the two have been busy, it has helped having each other for support.

"It's helped having a close support system right here in Nashville, right here when you need it most. I could have a bad day and when I came home he was willing to talk about it, and vice-versa," she said.

Managing the two graduation ceremonies was tougher, however.

"I guess I could have grabbed my diploma, then sprinted across campus to see him get his, but we had 15 family members here between the two of us," she said. "We're just going to enjoy our ceremonies, have one family member videotape each ceremony, then we're going home to a huge house full of people and watch both of them."