Incoming students at the School of Medicine were recognized at a ceremony on Saturday, where they received white coats that signify the beginning of a career in the medical field.
The White Coat Ceremony, which was first introduced in 1989 by the University of Chicago, marks a “pivotal transition” into the medical profession and identifies students as physicians, Whitehead professor and surgeon Christian Larsen said. Emory has held the ceremony for about a decade.
During the ceremony, students take the Oath of Hippocrates where they swear to practice medicine ethically and are given the white coats that will recognize them as students of medicine.
This year, more family and friends came than expected, Associate Dean for Student Affairs and Director of Admissions at the School of Medicine Ira Schwartz said. Several audience members were moved to a different room, where they watched the event from a television.
“May I say to our TV audience, thanks for coming. Your chairs are a lot more comfortable and you’re closer to the refreshments, so save us something to eat and drink,” Schwartz joked.
As he opened the ceremony, Schwartz said that some students and faculty members were not present because of the H1N1 influenza and asked family and friends at the ceremony to be careful.
“Avoid exuberant kissing of strangers,” he warned. “Kiss your own kids and let the other kids be kissed by their own parents.”
Similar to a graduation ceremony, new students walked onto the stage one-by-one as their names were called. Doctors and faculty members stood on stage and dressed students in white coats.
“These newly-starched coats will never be as clean again,” Schwartz said as many faculty members in the audience nodded their heads in agreement.
With these coats should come an intellectual curiosity about science, about medicine across the world, in other people and curiosity in oneself, Schwartz said.
“As you’re sitting here, I’m sure the question you’re all asking is, ‘Why white coats?’” Schwartz said. “Why celebrate something that is just a flimsy piece of white cotton? Or if you’re talking about mine, a cotton-polyester blend?”
He said that the white coats are symbols of goodness and represent scientific authority such as scientific-based evidence rather than opinion-based medicine, safety, cleanliness, honesty, compassion, power and protection.
Schwartz said that the coats should not represent authoritarianism or arrogance and should not serve as an emotional barrier between the wearer and the patient.
“How will you wear these white coats?” Schwartz asked the students. “You will have to make decisions about other people; choice is inevitable, and we hope that you will make the right choices.”
During the rest of the ceremony, School of Medicine faculty and doctors from the Emory Hospital spoke to the class of 138 new students about both the hardships and rewards that students should expect throughout the journey to becoming a physician.
The first few weeks of school are trying, School of Medicine Dean Thomas Lawley said, adding that it is not unusual for students to think twice about a career in medicine. However, he encouraged them to continue to work hard.
“Just think — in less than 44 months, you will all be physicians,” Lawley said among laughter. “Keep smiling.”
Executive Associate Dean for Medical Education William Eley warned parents that students will be spending an increasing amount of time with their studies and will not be calling or writing as often as before. The best gift a parent can give to a student right now, he said, is ongoing care and respect.
“They [the students] will look at their new classmates and think, everyone here is smarter than me,” Eley explained to audience members and then addressed students, “I understand you, because when I look at you, I have the same thought.”
Eley emphasized the difficulty of medical school, and said that everybody will stumble from time to time, but that despite day-to-day stresses, students will continue to rise and progress.
A career in medicine comes with great rewards, Larsen said, but also requires great responsibility. He said that recently, he experienced the world of medicine from the patient’s point of view when his mother’s health deteriorated suddenly and an unexpected illness hit him that same week. Larsen added that the experience allowed him to finally grasp the sense of fear and uncertainty that physicians don’t always understand.
To describe the nature of a career in medicine, Larsen told the story of Quinn Roberts, an 8-year-old girl and one of Larsen’s patients who is currently recovering from a kidney surgery at Emory’s Children’s Hospital. While Quinn’s operation was a success, Larsen told students to be wary of the many imperfections and sometimes, failings in medicine.
“I really appreciated hearing from the surgeon [Larsen],” said Thomas Daniel, first-year student at the School of Medicine. “It was nice because it was humbling. As many people know, doctors have the attitude and the God-complex, but I didn’t get that from him.”
Speakers at the event warned students of the difficulties of going into medicine. And while Daniel said that the path was very challenging and could be overwhelming, he said it is also just a matter of balancing school with personal life.
First-year Med School student Constance Harrell said that the deans who spoke at the event portrayed day-to-day life very well.
“It’s up and down every day,” Harrell said, adding that stress levels can change by an hourly basis.
Despite the daily trials students face, Daniel, who originally thought about being a lawyer, said that a career in medicine is definitely right for him.
“Medicine is technical and challenging,” he said, “but I get to help people in a way that nobody else really gets to do.”