The School of Medicine has announced the five finalists who were selected by their peers in the graduating class to receive the prestigious 2010 Gold-Headed Cane Award, the highest honor bestowed upon a graduating medical student. The winner’s name will be announced at the June 5 commencement ceremonies for the school.

The Gold-Headed Cane Award has a long tradition at UTMB. Dr. Charles T. Stone Sr., professor emeritus of internal medicine, established the award in 1960.  A gold ring engraved with the newest recipient's name is added to the staff of the cane to commemorate the occasion. The cane is on permanent display at the Moody Medical Library; recipients receive a replica. 

“To be nominated by your peers for the Gold-Headed Cane award is an extraordinary honor, and I am immensely proud of these finalists,” said Dr. Garland D. Anderson, dean of medicine, executive vice president and provost of the School of Medicine. “They are not only quite accomplished, they have demonstrated to their fellow students their compassion for patients and others, and represent the best of the healing profession.”

The UTMB tradition honors the 18th century practice of presenting a gold-headed cane to the pre-eminent physician in English society. One such cane was continuously carried from 1689 to 1825 by five distinguished British physicians and now resides in the Royal College of Physicians in London.

2010 Gold-Headed Cane finalists

Patrick Aguilar Patrick Aguilar

Patrick Aguilar describes a defining moment in his life that came while working with a patient at the free clinic at St. Vincent’s House during his second year of medical school.

“I sit across from my 60-year-old patient and find myself increasingly frustrated as he says,  ‘Diabetes killed my sister, it killed my cousin and it will kill me.’  His diet consists of a daily meal of fried food and pastries. Oh well, I think, he is doing this to himself. Yet, in this encounter, I am somehow unable to quit. I persistently badger him about the simple changes that might save his life.  Finally, he raises his voice. ‘What do I have to live for?  My wife left me last year and my kids don't answer my calls.’  In our shared moment on a balmy Tuesday night, this man taught me one of the most important lessons I have ever learned.  He taught me that there is always more to the story.”

Aguilar credits the physiologists, pharmacologists, surgeons and internists he’s worked with during his time at UTMB with giving him a foundation of learning that is crucial to the advancement of his career. But, he adds, “The seemingly trite notion that our patients are our greatest teachers has actually turned out to be true.”

Aguilar will do his residency in internal medicine at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio.

Emily Fisher Emily Fisher

Emily Fisher said that being nominated for the Gold-Headed Cane Award is the greatest honor she has received, and she is especially honored to be sharing the recognition with her peers.

“’Humility, Humanity, Fidelity’ are the words engraved on the gold-headed cane that resides on the second floor of the Moody Medical Library. To be selected by my classmates as representing those ideas is amazing, staggering and humbling. To be selected with four amazing classmates, all of whom I’m privileged to call a dear and close friend, is phenomenal. I feel lucky beyond words.”

Fisher said that her experiences at UTMB have prepared and inspired her to be the best primary care physician that she can be.

“I am so thankful for so much of what I have learned during my time here at UTMB, both on campus and off. I think that many of the physicians I’ve encountered have been exemplary at demonstrating the best clinical skills possible. Many resource-poor patients have great need, but they may only see one or two doctors their whole life. UTMB has inspired me to ensure that if that doctor is me, I will be confident that I have not missed anything abnormal, and confident in the plan of care.”

Fisher will do a combined residency in medicine and pediatrics at the Medical College of Wisconsin Hospitals in Milwaukee.

Katie Kucera Katie Kucera

Katie Kucera said she chose a career in medicine after several trips to Central America, where she volunteered in orphanages and worked alongside doctors.  She said, “The people I met shared their stories with me and I wanted to have something useful to offer in return.  As a result, I resolved to become a primary care doctor.”

Kucera, who has served as one of the directors of the free clinic at St. Vincent’s House for the last two years, said that a large part of practicing medicine is getting to know people and developing relationships based on trust.

“Medicine is not the same as other professions.  We are not just getting money in exchange for a service.  We are getting stories about our patient’s lives, which are not always comfortable to share.  For their trust, we have an obligation to give, at minimum, our empathy and medical knowledge.  In return, we have a window into people’s lives and communities.”

Kucera will serve her residency in family medicine at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health in Madison.

Katrina Leonard Katrina Leonard

Katrina Leonard describes herself as being “unabashedly, wholeheartedly addicted to feeling humbled,” a quality that she attributes to the many life lessons she received by volunteering, working as a paramedic and registered nurse, and serving as an advocate for the underprivileged.

“Without a doubt, the time that I have spent working abroad, working on the border, and working on the Navajo reservation have been some of my most humbling experiences,” said Leonard.  “In Guatemala, it was working with the shoeless children who were being treated almost monthly for parasites. In South Africa, it was walking through orphanages where 80 percent of the children were HIV positive.

Leonard said her experiences in medical school were “not only humbling, as I learned the intricacies and politics of health care, but also encouraging because I personally experienced how one individual can effectively be a voice for many.”

Leonard said she entered medical school four years ago wanting to save the world and is grateful that she still has the same desire. “I enthusiastically welcome the lifelong learning that family medicine will bring and look forward to maintaining my optimism, humanism and compassion for years to come.”

Leonard will serve her residency in family medicine at the Swedish Medical Center at Carolyn Downs in Seattle, Wash.

Daniel Pino Daniel Pino

Daniel Pino said that his “passion to know people and a desire to serve those in need” is what started him on the path to a career in medicine. Pino, whose father was a surgeon, said he realized at an early age that he wanted to become a doctor, but it was through volunteering that his goal was solidified.

“While teaching children in an impoverished neighborhood in Austin for nearly three years, I got a glimpse into their everyday lives. These families experienced many hardships and some involved their health care. I want to return to such a place and continue to serve by offering help as a community-based physician,” said Pino.

Pino credits medical school with teaching him the value of building relationships and the art of listening, saying that he “felt most effective when I took the time to learn about a patient and fully understand who they are, what they are experiencing, and the situation surrounding their illness.”

Pino will serve a combined residency in internal medicine and pediatrics at the Indiana University School of Medicine in Indianapolis.