Bedford graduation speaker, Dr. Heid: ‘Try new adventures, keep challenging yourself’

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Twenty-two years ago, Dr. Gretchen Ela Heid, M.D., walked across the stage in Bedford High School and received her diploma. At the time, Heid was enjoying the last summer of her youth before embarking on her first year of college.

She had absolutely no idea what she wanted to do in life.


That’s when the opportunity presented itself for Heid to join a group of her fellow incoming freshmen in an eight-day backpacking trip across a New Hampshire mountain range. It seemed like the typical, forgettable freshman “team-building” orientation exercise that hundreds of thousands of new college students participate in every year. Heid had never gone camping before, and never been particularly enthralled or even interested in the subject.


But in that moment, something inside her decided it was an opportunity worth taking.


Years later, it proved to be one of the best decisions of her life.


“I took on an experience that ultimately changed my life, though at the time it didn’t feel like it,” said Heid.


Standing onstage at the Tsongas Arena as the keynote speaker for the 2014 Bedford High School graduation, more than two decades after she herself had been in the seniors’ same shoes, Heid reflected on the long and circuitous rout that had taken her from Bedford, to Italy, the wild Alaskan frontier and back home. It was a journey that had made her life, and it was a journey she owed it all to by simply taking a chance on something unknown.


“I tried something new; I went on an eight-day backpacking trip in the mountains of New Hampshire, with a group of my fellow incoming freshmen. I’d never been backpacking. I’d never climbed a mountain, and I’d certainly never [camped out] with a bunch of smelly 18-year olds,” she said, eliciting laughter.


But that first experience into the great unknown lit a spark in Heid that only burned brighter with each passing year.


“This first-ever experience in the backcountry introduced me to something great,” said Heid. “A sense of freedom grabbed me on that trip and never let go.”


When she finished her undergraduate course work, Heid once again found herself without a definitive direction, staring down the unknown. Once again, to paraphrase Robert Frost, she took the road less traveled, and once again, it made all the difference.


“At the end of college, that question, that nagging question still hung in my mind: ‘What do I want to do with my life?’ But even after all those academic years, that most important thing, try new adventures, keep challenging yourself; that never changes,” said Heid.


“So I left Massachusetts to teach for a year in Milan, Italy. It was a challenging, rewarding year,” she explained. “That taught me more life skills than any other experience I have ever had.”

Upon her return, Heid enrolled in Perelman School of Medicine University of Pennsylvania, where she met an emergency physician who practiced far from the beaten path. 

“I met an emergency physician who had traveled the world; places far outside the norm, and I was inspired by this,” said Heid, “So I followed his example: I headed to Alaska.”


The month-long rotation in Alaska left a life-long impression on Heid, who upon completing her residence in Boston and earning her medical degree, headed back to Alaska, embracing “the life of adventure in the last frontier,” as an emergency room doctor in Anchorage.


After several years in Alaska, Heid decided to move back to Massachusetts to be closer to her family following the birth of her first son.


“We returned to Massachusetts to be closer to family and searched for our first home. And we searched and we searched and we finally found a place, a remarkable place, that had everything we wanted and everything we needed for our young family. And where is this remarkable place? That place is right here, that place is right now. Today I live a quarter-mile from [Bedford] high school,” she laughed.


Now working as an emergency room doctor at Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, Heid’s life has come full circle for Heid. Standing underneath the white-hot lights of the Tsongas, Heid assured the class of 2014 that it is fine to not know what the want to do in life, but to always embrace the unknown and to always take Bedford with them.


“Opportunity can come in all shapes and sizes,” she said. “What if I had never taken that opportunity to go backpacking before my freshman year of college? What if I had never followed the path of those who inspired me?” she said. “I suggest you remember these things: Keep yourself open to opportunities, try new things, don’t be afraid to take some risks, and always know that the Bedford community will be here for you – tonight, tomorrow and forever.”



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