May 18, 2017

James Thrall, MD ('68): Supporting our community

James Thrall, MD, joined our Medical Center Alumni Society (MCAS) board this past spring. Partly retired, Dr. Thrall serves as the Chairman Emeritus in the Department of Radiology at Massachusetts General Hospital-Harvard Medical School. He graduated from the University of Michigan in 1964, and then from Michigan Medical School in 1968. He completed his residency and fellowship at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. Here, Dr. Thrall answers 9 questions about what draws him back to Michigan again and again.

Why did you choose University of Michigan for your education/training?

I grew up in Ann Arbor and by the time I was ready to go to college and medical school, I had already identified completely with the University of Michigan. Why go anywhere else when excellence is so close to home? I looked quite seriously at other schools, but no one else could match the combination of the quality of education and amazing school spirit.

Do you have any special memories from your time in Ann Arbor that have stayed with you?

President Lyndon Johnson spoke at my undergraduate commencement in 1964 outlining his vision for the “Great Society.” It was a very memorable day to say the least. His vision led to the establishment of Medicare and Medicaid, which play key roles in our health care system. They are not perfect programs, but they help provide insurance coverage for tens of millions of people and help them have better lives.

How would you characterize your experience at Michigan?

I have had the unique perspective of leaving and then returning to Michigan a couple of different times in my career. As you engage with people trained elsewhere you realize that the education you received at the University of Michigan stacks up more than favorably with theirs. You also realize how many Michigan people are in positions of leadership around the country, which in itself opens doors, helps you network and creates opportunities.

What has kept you connected to Michigan throughout your career?

Wherever I have been in my career, the University of Michigan has always just seemed like my real home. Michigan got me started both as a student and then as a faculty member. When something has been so important to you, you want to stay close to it and not lose touch. You also want to see it flourish and become even better.

What interested you in taking a position on the MCAS board?

The MCAS Board has become much more active in the last few years with a major focus on the student experience, which to me is extremely important. The Board members are from all over the country, and bring a wealth and diversity of knowledge of what has worked well elsewhere that can be invaluable in finding new and creative ways to improve the student experience at Michigan. Participating in that is a nice way of giving back.

How do you view your role as a board member?

Michigan has a tradition of being the “leader and best.” I am focused on how I can use what I have learned in my own career at Michigan and at Mass General and Harvard Medical School to help Michigan maintain its leadership position. I am also focused on how we can stay better connected with Michigan alums and keep them more engaged with Michigan Medicine throughout their careers and lives. The key is for people to have a good experience while in school and to have active communication after graduation. I plan to focus my efforts on these.

What are your favorite alumni activities?

My favorite is attending homecoming weekend. You have an opportunity to reconnect with the Medical School and then experience the uniqueness of a Big Ten football weekend in Ann Arbor. Is there anything better?

What do you like about staying active in the Medical School’s alumni community?

The two best things are being able to reconnect with former classmates, friends and colleagues and being able to stay up to date on how Michigan is doing today. When people go into practice they immediately become immersed. Relationships become challenging to maintain, but alumni events offer a common point for coming together and reconnecting.

The value of a person’s education comes from both what they learned in school but also from the reputation of the institution they attended. Institutional reputation is like a brand that influences how people are regarded. From this perspective, it is in our collective interest that the University of Michigan Medical School maintain the highest reputation possible. We can help achieve that by being active and supportive alumni.

What is your best advice for future physicians?

My best advice to future physicians is to stay true to the basic values of medical practice—put patients first and act with honesty and integrity. This turns out to be more important than any fact you can learn or skill that you can acquire. Also, recognize that even though you had to pass all those exams along the way as an individual, the practice of medicine is a “team” sport, so be inclusive and respectful of the people on your team.