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Pearls of Wisdom

Robert McNellis, PA ’91, M.P.H. ’91, keynote speaker, slid his glasses to rest on top of his head as he turned to address the new physician assistant (PA) students sitting patiently with white coats on their laps at the Convocation and Short White Coat Ceremony at the Dorothy Betts Theater on June 26.

“I am really excited to be here with you,” said McNellis, a former assistant professor of health care sciences at the GW School of Medicine and Health Sciences (SMHS) from 1992 to 2001 and the current senior advisor for primary care at the Agency for Healthcare Research Quality. “Today is an important milestone as you begin your journey towards becoming a competent and compassionate PA. But it’s one of many milestones along the way.” The other milestones — the application process, encountering the first standardized patient, the first surgery, “the first time getting yelled at by a surgeon,” and the first birth and death — are some of the powerful experiences, he said, the members of the Class of 2017 will experience in their journey from student to professional.

That journey, as the budding PA students learned, is one rife with opportunities, should they follow the string of pearls of wisdom from their future colleagues. “Get everything out of this experience,” McNellis urged between wry observations of life as a PA. “Really, fully engage. Don’t say, ‘well, you know what, I came in at nine, I’m out by five, I’m done,’ because it’s the patient who shows up after five o’clock who you’re going to learn the most from. It’s the extra night on call where you’re going to get something special.”

From Emily Arcand, PA ’16, president of the James K. Tolton Society, the new class heard about striving for balance and a standard of excellence with the patient as a first priority. “To me, these coats say, ‘I don’t have all the answers, but I’m going to try really, really hard.’ Take advantage of the time you have with your short white coats. [It] is a time you have to explore your new role and discover what it means for you.” Arcand’s classmate, Erica Millet, PA ’16, director of outreach for the Student Academy of the American Academy of Physician Assistants, urged the Class of 2017 to get involved and volunteer, and to “be fearless, not careless.”

And from the faculty, the students’ future mentors and leaders, the advice and symbolism of the short white coat was simple: “The most important thing [the white coat] symbolizes to your patient is that you’ll listen to them, and you will join them in carrying whatever it is they brought in to lay before you,” said Susan LeLacheur, Dr.P.H. ’08, M.P.H. ’89, B.S. ’80, associate professor of physician assistant studies at SMHS; “Be vigilant, and I’m certain that you will be successful,” advised Karen Wright, Ph.D., PA-C, interim chair and program director for physician assistant studies at SMHS.

With those thoughts in mind, the students recited the pledge with Howard Straker, PA-C, assistant professor of physician assistant studies at SMHS. At LeLacheur’s command — “Put on those coats!” — the first-year students, with help from the second-year PAs seated behind them, donned their short white coats to laughter and applause.

“We’ve seated a wonderful class, and we have high expectations from all of you,” said Joseph Bocchino, Ed.D., M.B.A., senior associate dean for health sciences at SMHS. “And our guests in the audience, I’ll look forward to seeing you in two years when we go through this process in a different way at graduation.”