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The Fabric of a Physician’s Life

Although a “simple piece of clothing,” as speaker Michael Kahn, a second-year medical student at the GW School of Medicine and Health Sciences (SMHS), put it at the M.D. White Coat and Honor Code Ceremony on Aug. 8, the physician’s white coat is replete with symbolism. “Superman has his cape, Spiderman’s got his tights, and I’ve got my white coat,” Kahn said. “To those we serve, it’s a symbol of healing, knowledge, and trust. And for those reasons, it also carries with it immense power.”

The words of Kahn, a former English teacher, tugged at a narrative thread that wove through the speeches at the annual ceremony. From second-year medical students and ceremony co-coordinators Janani Raveendran and Maria Henry, the M.D. Class of 2019 learned to treat the white coat as representative of their commitment to medicine and patients. “Accept this [as] a symbol of your choice,” Henry encouraged.

Jeffrey S. Akman, M.D. ’81, RESD ’85, vice president for health affairs, Walter A. Bloedorn Professor of Administrative Medicine, and dean of SMHS, likened the white coat to George Washington’s revered hatchet as “an everlasting symbol for professionalism, humanism, and, most importantly, truth and integrity.” Richard Simons, M.D., senior associate dean for M.D. programs and professor of medicine at SMHS, urged students to seek curiosity as they don the white coats that signal their entrance into medicine, with all of its duties, responsibilities, and rewards.

It was from Major General Nadja West, M.D. ’88, joint staff surgeon and ceremony keynote speaker, however, that students heard of the white coat’s impact beyond the circle of medicine. “I wear the cloth of our nation in my uniform, but the threads of my white coat are embedded in the fibers of this uniform here,” West said. As she described her experiences as a highly decorated member of the Armed Forces, she emphasized the unique privileges of physicians. “You get to share the most intimate and personal details of another human being’s life,” she explained. “You get to relieve suffering. You get to provide hope. And you get to make a difference in something that truly matters: someone’s health.”

Following West’s address, the nearly 200 members of the Class of 2019 lined up to formally don their white coats for the first time. While Rhonda Goldberg, M.A. ’77, associate dean for student affairs, and Diane McQuail, M.A., associate dean of admissions, led the introductions, Akman helped each student slip into his or her coat.

“The purchase of your white coats by the many generous alumni donors, families, and friends listed in your program is our way of saying ‘welcome to the GW medical community,’” Akman explained. “These donations reflect that GW medical school graduates want to invest in the future of medicine, that we believe in our alma mater and in your dream of becoming physicians.”

As part of the White Coat Initiative, which includes the donated coats, students also received iPads earlier in the week during orientation, a multi-day event organized by second-year medical students Michelle Chen, Chase Hiller, and Michael McMullen.

At the ceremony, after shaking hands with Akman and signing the Honor Code with guidance from Yolanda Haywood, M.D., RESD ’87, B.S. ’81, associate dean for diversity, inclusion, and student affairs and associate professor of emergency medicine, and Lawrence “Bopper” Deyton, M.D. ’85, M.S.P.H., senior associate dean for clinical public health, students stood proudly to applause from family and friends.

 “It’s a symbol of my dedication to the profession of medicine, and certainly, the short white coat is a sign that I’m starting on the journey of becoming a physician,” Matthew Kinnard said after the class filtered out of Lisner Auditorium for a reception in Kogan Plaza.

His classmate, Amira Athanasios, echoed the sentiment of her new mentors and teachers: “The white coat is a symbol for healing, which carries gentleness and trust with it. And hope.”