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Reflections on 169 White Coats

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White Coat Ceremony
Photo: Susan Merrell

by Jeffrey Chen, MS 1

As we walk in, the audience bursts into applause. Our pristine white coats—symbols of the profession we are about to enter—are slung over our left arms. After a long week of orientation and lectures, we first-year medical students are ceremoniously welcomed to the world of medicine.

There are 169 of us, each with a different path that led to this moment. “You come from 21 states and 17 different countries of birth,” says Dean Hawgood in his welcoming remarks. “You have served in the Marine Corps, Americorps, and the Peace Corps. You have worked as lifeguards, yoga teachers, and ranch hands.”

Over the past few weeks, I’d gotten to know some of my classmates and their diverse stories and background. Now I couldn’t feel prouder standing with them, excited to take our first formal step together into learning medicine and eventually caring for patients.

One by one, we are called on stage. Helping us put on our white coats are Dr. David Wofsy, the Associate Dean for Admissions, and our advisory college mentors—UCSF physicians chosen to guide students academically and personally through our four-plus years of medical school.

At first, the idea that we adults need someone to help us put on our white coats seems a bit silly. But I watch and see students struggle to get these jackets on. When my name is called, a beaming Dr. Wofsy holds my coat. My left arm goes in easily, but it takes a fair bit of stretching and maneuvering to get my right arm in.

“It’s funny how much harder it is putting on a white coat compared to a normal jacket,” comments Dr. Elisabeth Wilson, director of the Program in Medical Education for the Urban Underserved (PRIME-US), in her keynote address. “After all, on the surface, it’s just a jacket of blended cotton and polyester designed to hold way too much stuff.”

Now it makes sense that my classmates and I needed help putting on our coats. Learning medicine will not be a solely self-directed effort. It will take many people—faculty, staff, administrators, students, and patients—for us to learn what being doctors really means.

Dr. Wilson goes on to discuss how, to her, white coats represent compassion, commitment, and humility. She challenges us to find our own three words. “Start noticing those words in yourself, and remember the meaning behind the white coat and why you chose to walk down this path.”

Then we are invited to join Dr. Sue Carlisle, the other faculty and the physicians among our families and friends in reciting the Oath of Louis Lasagna, the modern version of the Hippocratic Oath.

“It was like being welcomed into a sacred union of those sworn to help others,” remarks Daniel Copeland, a fellow first-year, after the ceremony.

At the reception that follows, we celebrate with our families and friends, the people who have cheered us on during our journeys to UCSF, cheered for us at the ceremony, and will continue to support us through our lives in medicine.

In just four days, I will put on my white coat and enter the hospital. I have a long way to go and much to learn before I’ll be a doctor (as the remarkably short length of our coats might suggest). But I know without a doubt that I will be learning with a diverse group of the most talented people I’ve ever met. “The incoming students have demonstrated their commitment to the best values of the school and the profession,” said Dr. Wofsy, “and they will go on to have a very positive impact on their communities and on the world.”

Or, as my classmate Gaelen Stanford-Moore tells me, “I am so excited to see where everyone takes their own white coat!” I couldn’t agree more.