Graduation has been very different this year for all the classes of 2020, including at the University of Texas Medical Branch.

For the five medical students nominated for the Golden-Headed Cane Award, the week leading up to graduation is usually filled with pomp and circumstance. But this year, the finalists are celebrating and getting ready for their next steps in a quieter setting.

The Golden-Headed Cane Award is a tradition that dates back to the 18th-century English practice of giving a gold-headed cane to preeminent physicians.

The medical branch has been making the award since 1960. The five finalists, and ultimate winner, are selected by their graduating peers.

The outbreak of a pandemic in the final semester of medical school meant changes for the finalists.

Finalist Beatriz Thames was in the middle of her final rotation of practice when coronavirus broke out, so her training was paused, she said.

“I wasn’t able to contribute in any way,” Thames said.

Instead, she volunteered with the Galveston County Health District making calls and giving information, Thames said.

Now, she’s getting packed for her Houston residency in neurology, Thames said.

Being nominated for the award was an honor, she said.

For finalist Colton Keo-Meier, being nominated for the award was a big deal because he went back to school after studying clinical psychology, he said, adding that becoming a finalist made that decision more special.

“It’s just really a validation of that choice,” said Keo-Meier said, who is preparing to move to Minnesota for a residency in family medicine.

The last few months of medical school usually don’t include many classes or training, but much of the graduates’ pre-residency training has shifted online.

That’s the case for finalist Jonathan Teran, he said.

Teran would have also just come back from a celebratory trip to Japan with some friends, which didn’t happen because of coronavirus, he said. Instead, he’s been spending his time getting ready for his family medicine residency in Tyler.

The students didn’t miss out on too much, but it was strange to graduate from medical school during a pandemic, finalist Laura Fitzgerald said.

She’s been working with other students on gathering donations for the community to help Galveston during the pandemic, she said.

The finalists also have missed out on some pomp around the graduation, finalist Philip Lavere said.

“Every year they take a photo of the finalists touching the cane,” Lavere said.

That won’t happen this year, but many finalists are planning small celebrations with their immediate family members.

Keo-Meier’s family got him a cake, he said. And Thames plans to watch the live streamed graduation with her family, she said.

“I’m really proud of what our school has done to make it as special as possible,” Thames said.

The University of Texas Medical Branch School of Medicine will hold its virtual graduation ceremony this morning.

The winner of the Golden-Headed Cane Award will be named during the ceremony.

Keri Heath: 409-683-5241; or on Twitter @HeathKeri. 


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