M.D. White Coat and Honor Code Ceremony
Family and friends of the newest class of medical students at the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences (SMHS) packed the aisles of Lisner Auditorium Aug.18 to celebrate the symbolic beginning of the medical careers of the Class of 2016.
Few moments are as memorable for medical students as when they first don their white coats, and thanks to generous donations from nearly 200 GW alumni, first-year SMHS medical students at received their white coats, a commemorative reflex hammer, and recited the honor code during the annual ceremony.
The class is already an accomplished group with a diverse body of experiences that ranges from serving in the Peace Corps to interning at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), to undertaking medical missions in underserved communities.
“This white coat ceremony marks the beginning of every academic year here at the George Washington University,” said GW President Steven Knapp, Ph.D., in his opening remarks. “In this ceremony we acknowledge and celebrate your choice of a life-long mission of caring for others and your dedication to a long and arduous, but we also hope enlightening and joyous, road of preparation.”
This year’s class, Knapp told the audience, was the most competitive in SMHS history. The school received a record 14,700 initial applications. From that deep pool of academic talent, a group of 177 students from 25 states, Canada, and India were picked to make up the Class of 2016. “But you have also selected us,” added Knapp. “You have chosen to study medicine at George Washington because you know that you will learn the art of medicine in a vital urban setting that also happens to be the seat of power and policy in the modern world. I urge you to listen to, and get involved in, the many opportunities available to you in this nation’s capital.”
Presiding over his second MD White Coat Ceremony as Interim Vice President for Health Affairs and Dean of SMHS, Jeffrey S. Akman, M.D. ’81, G.M.E. ’85, welcomed the new class and told them how eager the SMHS alumni, representing 10,000 physicians around the world, are to have them join GW’s community of health professionals.
“We recognize and understand perhaps better than anyone the path you are embarking upon and the enormous responsibilities you are undertaking,” said Akman. “In return, the graduates of this university enthusiastically embrace you as a member of this community. By agreeing to take up this mantle, you are also agreeing to live up to the values articulated in the GW medical school oath you are about to recite and symbolized in the white coat that you are soon to don.”
This year’s keynote speaker was GW alumnus Lawrence R. Deyton, M.D. ’85, M.S.P.H.,director of the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Center for Tobacco Products, who 31 years earlier was himself eagerly awaiting the start of his clinical training at GW.
Deyton boasts an impressive list of accomplishments not only as a clinician, but also as a public health professional and pioneer. As director of the FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products, Deyton has overseen the implementation and enforcement of the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, including its prohibition of marketing tobacco products to children and adolescents. He served in leadership positions at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at NIH for 11 years, and was chief public health and environmental hazards officer for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
“I have to admit that today is one of the most humbling honors of all,” said Deyton. “I am proud to help you launch your careers imbued with the concepts of humanism. Your potential to do good in this world fills me with awe and hope for our future.”
Citing a Gallup poll that ranked the public’s trust in physicians among the highest of any profession in American society, Deyton stressed that ideals of humanism are the very underpinning of medicine itself. He defined the principles of humanism as integrity, excellence, compassion, altruism, respect, empathy, and service.
“I strive every day of my career as a doctor, every time I use my medical education, to be guided by the principles of humanism in medicine,” said Deyton.
As the youngest of five, Deyton rebelled by initially going into public health and health policy rather than following his father and brothers into medicine. But it was his experience with physicians who did not embrace those principles of humanism in their own practices that ultimately led Deyton back to the family profession. As an openly gay man in the late 1970s, he recalled his community being treated by many doctors without the respect, empathy, or compassion that he thought were expected traits of any physician.
Rather than accept the injustices he witnessed, Deyton joined with other activists to form organizations such as the National Gay Health Coalition and the National Gay Health Education Foundation, and also founded the Whitman Walker Clinic in Washington, D.C to meet the needs of the gay community.
“That clinic exists today as a testament to those principles of humanism,” said Deyton, adding that Whitman Walker has grown to become the largest a community-based AIDS service organization and care provider in the Washington, D.C. area.
However rewarding those experiences were, Deyton ultimately realized he had to take the next step in his health career. “I realized that despite those rebelling years, I needed clinical medicine as part of my professional life. So 31 years ago, I sat where you are today.”
Jackie Mares, a second-year student, reflected on her own white coat experience just one year earlier, recalling how she spilled a celebratory milkshake down the front of her new white coat. “Of all of the colors of the rainbow, why do they have to be white?” she joked.
Mares offered some advice to the incoming class about adjusting to the rigors of medical school and balancing learning with life. “I’m sure you may have already heard this, but medicine is more of a lifestyle than a job,” she told her eager new colleagues. “You’ll measure days in minutes and seconds until your next exam. You must remember to stay vigilant and make sure you advocate for yourself as much as you expect to advocate for your future patients.”