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Director’s Corner – Honoring Zachary Jones

Posted by on Friday, October 1, 2021 in Director's Corner .

Remarks given at Celebration Service for Zachary Jones, Langford Auditorium, 9/22/2021 

by Chris Williams, MD, PhD

I am humbled to be able to share a few remarks at this important memorial for Zachary. I am grateful for the students who have been so willing to share stories that highlight different aspects of Zach’s personality and life. I, like so many of us, am shocked, stunned, and reeling, as I stand before you today. With Zach’s passing our program, community and the world has lost a brilliant, compassionate individual. My heart, thoughts and prayers go out to his family who have suffered such a devastating loss.

Zach was a member of our Medical Scientist Training Program. Over the past several days, remembrance services have given us a chance to gather, grieve, and share memories of Zach. I was privileged to listen to Zach’s classmates and friends share precious stories about his life… And what a life… Saxophone playing, lover of Hamilton, salsa dancing – a talent used in a medical school skit, I am told. I knew that he enjoyed cooking, but it was clear after hearing friend after friend talk about Zach’s culinary talent that it was much more than just cooking. It was just one of the many ways he SERVED so that he enriched others’ lives… He apparently also served by losing at poker. I liked the way one student described Zach. He was an enhancer, he always sought to enrich the lives of those around him.

As I have come to know Zach over the past 4 years a couple of observations stand out and were reinforced by his friends shares. He was a kind man with an all-encompassing, unjudging heart and a very ready smile. In fact, I think anyone who has ever crossed paths with Zach know exactly what I am talking about. He cherished his friendships and was eager to help people connect and build community. As Zach entered graduate school, we had frequent conversations discussing physician scientist careers, graduate school, and their challenges and opportunities. It was rare for one of these discussions to draw to a close without Zach asking me how I was doing. Zach genuinely cared for others.

Being a member of the MSTP is like being a member of a family. Really within the MSTP you are a family. When you arrive as a first-year medical student, the M2’s select you’re “big”-sister or brother, and they have “bigs” and so on. In fact, Zach and Donald were twins whose big is Nowrin. Perhaps it’s not surprising then that our students form such tight bonds and within their class. In fact, one of his classmates shared with me that Zach often joked that he was looking forward to a 14-way couples match for residency… I am not so sure he was joking. Zach thrived on these relationships and looked for ways to deepen them. I recently learned that during his second year of medical school, he volunteered to drive other M2s to our Annual MSTP retreat at Lake Barkley. He then surprised them by picking them up in his bright red convertible mustang- top down, stopping for ice cream… and subsequently arriving an hour late… Zach was the glue.

The words people choose to describe their feelings tell you a little bit about them. I recently re-read Zach’s application packet and several of his yearly personal assessments called IDPs. The words used with the highest frequency throughout these documents were “blessed”, “joy”, “service”, and “gratitude”. These were used to describe his relationships, his training, and his aspirations for a future as a physician scientist. And they described his attitude when approaching life. Dr. Andrew Bauer in his letter of recommendation for Zach said “Zachary cares about research and medicine for all the right reasons; for Zachary, intellectual discovery and achievement is not an end, it is a path to help others” and described Zach as “a student with unlimited capacity for positive change.”*

It is common for people to enter medical school knowing exactly what type of physician they would end up becoming. It’s much less common for them to leave the program actually having done that. For Zach…there was no question, there would be no change. From the day he entered the program he shared broadly that he would be a Pediatrician, and confided in some, that he would be training at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Of all the clerkships, pediatrics was the highpoint, the trick was going to be, is it Pediatric hematology/oncology, or endocrinology or even rheumatology? I was sure he would figure it out. A friend shared this story, clearly highlighting his commitment to a career devoted to the care of children. During his pediatrics clerkship, one of Zach’s young patients was nauseated and then promptly threw up on Zach. “His immediate instinct was to console his patient and assuage the child’s embarrassment, and when Zach returned to the team workroom, he received a round of applause from the residents and faculty. Zach proudly shared this story with his friends. He viewed it as a rite of passage and truly could not wait to begin his career in pediatrics where he wanted to be known as ‘Dr. Zach’.”** This commitment was built over a lifetime, through volunteering at his church nursery and A.I. DuPont Hospital, to his many-year involvement in the special Olympics, and volunteering for our mini-MSTP for 7th graders from underserved communities. Throughout his application file, in every IDP, and in day-to-day conversations, he was unwavering in his commitment to serving children.

He was equally passionate and committed to research. He recognized that as a physician he would touch the lives of many, but as a physician scientist he might make a “global difference in healthcare” and aspired to discover something “grand”. I am sure he would have. As he approached graduate school, he recognized the value of finding the “right” mentor and was intensely concerned in selecting his graduate school lab. What was so important to him, he said, was the team with which he worked, and the PI who led them. He was so excited the day he called me to tell me that he would join Mariana Byndloss’s lab. He had found his graduate school home.

I hope I have touched on some parts of Zach’s life that sparks memories of him in yours. Yes, Zach’s physical presence is no longer with us, but what he has taught us, what he had shown us, persists in our hearts and minds. Ten years from now I suspect we may find ourselves cooking for friends, singing Hamilton, dancing the Salsa (not me), having a “eureka” moment in the lab, aiding and comforting a patient and pause and say, “Yes, that is how Zach would have done it”, and in many ways the world will continue to be a better place because of him. The question for each of us, is how will we live our lives in ways that honor him, and enrich and enhance the lives of those around us?

*with permission

** story added after remarks delivered.