As the white coat slipped over Charlotte Gopinath’s shoulders, she took the first step to becoming a doctor; with the support of her husband and two daughters, ages 3 and 10 months, it’s a path she won’t embark on alone.
“It will be a wonderful journey for us as a family,” Gopinath said following the George Washington University (GW) School of Medicine and Health Sciences (SMHS) White Coat and Honor Code Ceremony on Saturday afternoon, Aug. 5.
When receiving their white coats, the 183 members of the MD Class of 2021 not only stepped onto the stage in Lisner Auditorium to the sounds of cheers from their old friends and family, but also with the encouragement of their new GW family.
“The purpose of your white coats, the purchase of your white coats, by the many generous alumni donors, family, and friends … is our way of saying welcome to the GW medical community,” Jeffrey S. Akman, MD ’81, RESD ’85, vice president for health affairs, Walter A. Bloedorn Professor of Administrative Medicine, and dean of SMHS, said in his welcoming remarks.
Drawing on his own experiences as a first-year GW medical student 40 years earlier, Akman gave the new students three pieces of advice, which he said are symbolized by the institution’s namesake, George Washington. Akman told the students to aspire to greatness together; to prepare for and embrace the change they will experience as medical students and physicians; and “to never forget that honesty and integrity are the central components of the physician identity.”
Keynote speaker Jehan “Gigi” El-Bayoumi, MD, RESD ’88, professor of medicine at SMHS and founding director of the Rodham Institute, also turned to the number three for her remarks, offering up a trio of words the students should live by: acceptance, service, and love.
A lesson she said the students should take with them is one of acceptance of all people, particularly for those who may not be accepted by others. El-Bayoumi referenced the dawn of the HIV/AIDS crisis during the 1980s, a time when she was still in training. “I remember everybody was very frightened,” she said. But GW, she explained, “was seen as a beacon of hope and light” and a place where patients could get compassionate and holistic care.
“Acceptance is so key. A word from a physician or medical student can be the difference between night and day [for patients],” she said.
Second-year MD student Rebecca Allen emphasized the obligation to others that comes with donning a white coat. “Putting on a white coat doesn’t give you superpowers, but it does give you a great deal of responsibility: responsibility to your community, to your profession, and to yourself,” she said.
Allen shared a story from this past January to reflect that level of responsibility. She and a group of fellow MD students attended the Women’s March on Washington in their white coats. While gathered in the crush of the crowds, the group heard voices yelling that two women had fainted. They heard people calling for help, and then, “look, a group of doctors!”
“We’re all like ‘Where?!’ ” Allen said with a laugh. “It took a moment, but we quickly realized they were talking about us. You spend a lot of time as a medical student telling people you are not a doctor. But in moments like this, you realize that when you put on a white coat, to everyone else, you might as well be. The nuance of the length of your white coat or the extent of your schooling is not important. People need help, and everyone is looking to you.”
For first-year MD student Gifty Dominah, her family’s reaction to seeing her in her white coat helped its meaning to sink in.
“I know it’s the beginning of a long journey,” she said, “but I saw in their eyes awe. Their baby girl who left for med school had become a world changer with the donning of a white coat. [The coat now] makes me a role model and gives me a platform to make change in my community.”