The physician assistant (PA) Class of 2016 marked its journey with firsts, said Karen Wright, Ph.D., interim chair of Physician Assistant Studies and program director for the Physician Assistant Program at the GW School of Medicine and Health Sciences (SMHS), at the PA Long White Coat and Awards Ceremony on May 13.
“Your first day at orientation in Ross Hall,” she recalled. “Your first lecture. Your first standardized patient. Your first exam. Possibly your first exam failure. Your first real patient. The first time you delivered a baby. Your first surgery.”
For every peak and valley, the students persevered, working to ascend to the next stage of their professional career. Along the way, however, one person stood out.
“The PA school journey was not just an academic one, it was an emotional one, and it tested our limitations, humility, stamina, endurance, and patience,” said Emily Arcand, PA ’16. “Mo recognized all of these challenges that we would be facing as students and did everything in her power to ensure that we would overcome them united.”
Maureen “Mo” Wernet, also known as the unofficial “Class Mom,” nurtured her classmates over the humps of the intense educational experience. In addition to her roles as student council treasurer and class representative at the 2015 American Academy of Physician Assistants conference, Wernet took care of her classmates, her “whole new family,” as she described them. Arcand recalled mentioning to Wernet that she was suffering from allergies after moving to the Washington, D.C. area; the next day, Wernet handed her a bag of Zyrtec with dosing instructions. Over the course of the program, she also brought homemade lunches, cooked a turkey for Thanksgiving, and organized gifts of appreciation.
At the Long White Coat ceremony, student speaker Wernet, true to her nickname, presented words of encouragement.
“I know many of you have heard my clinical year motto — but moms love to repeat themselves, so here goes — be early, be brave, and be kind,” she said, adding “and don’t forget your snacks.”
Guest speaker Bryan Walker, MHS, PA-C, Duke University Medical Center, also offered advice and anecdotes, highlighting professionalism, serving the community, practicing evidence-based medicine, and advocating for patients, as well as their families and caregivers.
“So, two elderly couples were out for an evening stroll,” Walker said, sketching a story to the audience of students and their friends and families. “The ladies were in the front, and the gents were hanging back.”
As the tale goes, one of the men turned to the other and said, “I went to dinner at this great new restaurant last night. The food was outstanding, the service was excellent, the price was good.” The second man said, “That sounds great, what’s it called?” The first man replied, “I knew you were going to ask me that. My memory is horrible these days. Hang on, what’s the name of that really popular flower?” The second man guessed an orchid and a carnation before finally landing on the right one: a rose. “Rose, rose, that’s it,” the first man said and called to his wife, “Hey, Rose, what was the name of that restaurant?”
“You’ve got to look out for Rose as well as Harold in the back,” Walker said. He also urged the Class of 2016 to continue in the path of other PAs by staying involved in the community.
“Be a part of that legacy [of service],” he said. “Be a PA. Be a GW PA.”
Following Walker’s remarks, two GW PAs, Arcand and Erica Millett, received the PA Outstanding Student Awards, given to those with the highest cumulative GPA. Additionally, Millett and Olga Terekhina, MSHS ’16, medical laboratory sciences, were the inaugural recipients of the Ozgur Ekmekci Award; Ekmekci, Ed.D., former interim chair and associate professor of the Department of Clinical Research and Leadership at SMHS, passed away in 2015. Graduates Lutfullah Almos and Jared Castro were awarded GW VALOR Professional Grants, given by the Office of Military and Veteran Student Services to reimburse the cost of exams for designated credentials, and finally, the newest inductees of honor society Alpha Eta were recognized.
At the conclusion of the awards presentation, the Class of 2016 prepared to take the next step of their journey: exchanging their short white coats for long ones.
“Don’t worry,” said Susan LeLacheur, Dr.P.H. ’08, PA-C, M.P.H. ’89, B.S. ’80, associate professor of physician assistant studies at SMHS. “You deserve the coat you’re about to put on, and you’ll grow into it.”
One by one, the PA students slipped on their coats with the aid of current and former PA faculty and recited their oath, pledging to treat their patients and the profession with honesty and dedication.
“Remember to be accountable for your actions, encourage your patients to be partners in their health care, continue to serve your communities, and be the voice for those voices that go unheard,” Wright said to the Class of 2016. “We are so very proud of you.”