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Reflections on Dr. Martin Luther King Day: Never Sacrifice the Gift

January 18, 2016

“If I were standing at the beginning of time with the possibility of taking a kind of general panoramic view of the whole of human history up to now . . .” -MLK

Seven years ago, a new life began for me. I reflected on the gift of Dr. King’s life and how I had come full circle in my new office, of the Cardiothoracic Surgery Department, at National Naval Medical Center, (now Walter Reed National Military Medical Center). Over a decade earlier, after medical school, I arrived at National Naval Medical Center as a new recruit, and took the oath that would commit me to a life of service in the U.S. Navy. On the day after Dr. King’s memorial I returned to where it all had started for me, and thought how all the events I experienced brought me to this place.

On that same day, seven years ago, a very similar drama and narrative was being played out just miles away. On January 20, 2009, not only was LCDR Hassan Tetteh, an African American heart surgeon reporting for his first day of duty at Naval Hospital, but a young man, Barack Obama, also an African American, was taking the presidential oath of office and reporting for his first day of duty as well. I wondered as a sat thinking forward of my great task ahead, how President Obama must have felt looking forward to his great task ahead. I also reflected on the special circumstances of the events; mine at Naval hospital, his on the steps of the capital, just a day after celebrating the memory of the man who once told a congregation that if he could live in any moment of time, he would choose the time he had. Dr. King said to the Almighty, “If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the twentieth century, I will be happy”.  I believe Dr. King understood his purpose and also knew his task was inextricably connected to the period of time he was living in.

It is unlikely that Dr. King would have his place in history, had he lived in another time of the world. This insight captivated me, and as I recognized the significance of the time I was living in, my leadership challenge became that of negotiating my purpose in that context. I believe it was no coincidence that I came full circle to the place where it all began for me, during a period of great change, on a historical day celebrating the man who contributed to make my present condition, and that of President Obama a reality.

The appreciation of the significance of my circumstance filled me with gratitude for the work that others had done, and moved me to think critically of how I would do my part to not “sacrifice the gift”. The urgent sense of responsibility overwhelmed me on that day, and perhaps it is most appropriate that many choose to spend the day in service to others. The opportunities created by those that suffered necessitate that I do more every day. During his Mountain Top Sermon, Dr. King preached to a disenfranchised crowd, “Let us rise up tonight with a greater readiness. Let us stand with a greater determination”. They had much less opportunity than I now have, and yet they were called upon to march on and do great things. When asked, where does an individual go to get the courage to act? My answer is this- those that have gone before me to make things possible had it much harder than I did, and yet marched on. This is where my courage must come from. “To whom much is given, much is expected”.