M.D. Class of 2018 White Coat and Honor Code Ceremony
“Let me offer my most enthusiastic congratulations to all of you who are set to begin medical school,” said Jeffrey S. Akman, M.D. ’81, RESD ’85, Walter A. Bloedorn Professor of Administrative Medicine, vice president for health affairs, and dean of the School of Medicine and Health Sciences (SMHS), before the nearly 180 members of the Class of 2018 during his welcoming remarks at the annual White Coat and Honor Code Ceremony on Aug. 9.
The annual event, sponsored by the GW Medical Alumni Association and the White Coat Initiative, serves a special welcome to first-year medical students, when they recite the school oath and sign the SMHS Honor Code pledge. This year’s class represents 25 states and the District of Columbia, as well as Canada, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. SMHS continues to attract an impressive array of social and academic all stars, including Peace Corps, Americorps, and Teach for America volunteers, as well as Fulbright/Canada Scholar, Gates Scholar, and Howard Hughes Scholar.
Harkening back to the iconography surrounding George Washington, the dean offered the new members of SMHS community three pieces of advice, symbolized by the university’s namesake.
“George Washington’s stature in world history is tied to his vision of future greatness for his country; for his remarkable leadership of the revolution that gave birth to a new identity for the Colonies; and for his honesty,” Akman told the audience. “Aspire to greatness; be prepared for revolutionary change in medicine, science, health care policy, and, most importantly, in your own identity; and never forget that honesty and integrity are the central components of a physician’s identity.”
Susan Som, a second-year medical student at SMHS, delivered a moving address to the incoming class, touching on themes of perspective and perseverance. Two years earlier, Som sat the same darkened rows of Lisner Auditorium reflecting upon similar themes of professionalism, responsibility, and honor. “I thought I had a pretty firm grasp of gravity of this made-in-China, crisply pressed garment that so proudly bore my name in all caps.”
Months later, the long hours study began to wear on her. “Suddenly that white coat from the summer didn’t seem so shiny, bright, and wonderful,” Som confessed. “I was letting the stress of exams shift my perspective.”
Later that year, she recalled sitting at the bedside of a 21-year-old patient named Jenny, who was recovering in the Intensive Care Unit following a craniotomy. Tests confirmed the patient was suffering from a grade-4 glioblastoma; a malignant, incurable cancer. Som described in detail the arduous journey of the young cancer patient, through a second craniotomy and months of radiation and chemotherapy.
“It’s sometimes easy to forget who we are outside of this path that we’ve chosen,” said Som. “It’s easy to forget that we are truly fortunate to be where we are. This coat is a gift. Our lives are a gift. The difficult road ahead; the sleepless nights, feeling homesick and stressed, as much the joyous triumphs like today, are all moments that should never take for granted. I didn’t truly understand the weight of it all, until I found myself standing there in that hospital room, because Jenny is my little sister.”
It wasn’t until she put her medical education on hold to care for her sister that Som finally understood what it meant to put on a white coat. “Today, you put on your first white coat. One day you will be responsible for somebody’s sister, or brother. Whoever they are, they will be someone who is loved; someone who matters. With every exam, every lecture, every obscure piece of information we stuff into out brains, it’s our duty to remember that one day, it may be critical to the care of someone’s loved one.”
Jo Shapiro, M.D. ’80, who serves as the chief of the Division of Otolaryngology in the Department of Surgery at Brigham Women’s Hospital, one of the first women division chiefs at BWH, presented the keynote address on the afternoon. It wasn’t, however, her first time speaking at an SMHS White Coat Ceremony. Like Som who spoke before her, Shapiro once stood upon the very same stage to address the next generation of GW physicians.
“Dr. Shapiro graduated from GW a year before me,” Akman told the audience, joking that “It’s an amazing coincidence that she was the second-year student who addressed the audience during my White Coat Ceremony. That’s pretty cool.”
“I cannot possibly do justice to the enormity of this moment,” confessed Shapiro, adding “I’m going to disclose that I just love this school. The culture here has always put the patient in the center of everything.”
Shapiro continued about what makes GW stand out for her. “GW recognizes how important it is to be as respectful and caring for each other as we are for our patients. A lot of places don’t understand that.”
In her address, Shapiro turned to the words of 11th century Persian author Abu-al-Faraj Rumi, and his poem “The Real Work” to drive home her message of perspective:
"There is one thing in this world that must never be forgotten. If you forget everything else, but not this, there is nothing to worry about. But, if you remember everything else, except this, then you will have done nothing in your life... Remember the deep root of your being."