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Physician Assistant Graduates Take Lessons Forward

“Sense memory” is a technique frequently used by actors that uses the five senses to aid in emotional recall, Adam Hartheimer explained to the graduates, faculty, family, and friends gathered to celebrate the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences (SMHS) Physician Assistant (PA) Program Class of 2019 White Coat Ceremony on May 17.

“Our duty as PAs is to share patient stories … only by sharing their stories can we sustainably support our patients,” said Hartheimer, a member of the Class of 2019 selected to serve as the student speaker for the event held at Dorothy Betts Marvin Theatre. “In the case of medicine, we can use sense memory to train our actions based on our past patient stories.”

He invited his colleagues to close their eyes and give the exercise a try. “What did the patient look like? What did their heart sound like through the stethoscope? What did their skin feel like?” he asked. “Pick your memories carefully. They are what will orient you as a new patient walks through the door. The empathy that patient will require will rely on our memories of patient stories.”

In receiving their white coats, students have done and learned more than they thought possible, said keynote speaker Tamara Ritsema, PhD, MPH, PA-C, assistant professor of physician assistant studies at SMHS. At the same time, she noted, they racked up a different kind of debt from what is typically associated with a graduate degree.

“We owe debts to those who walked this path with us, who have encouraged us, and have challenged us,” she said. Ritsema reminded the graduates who they owe the most: parents, siblings, teachers and coaches, PA professors, and fellow members of the Class of 2019. She encouraged the students to pay those debts back by showing compassion, being humble, continuing to learn, and being a great PA and colleague.

Among those who the graduates owed, Ritsema echoed Hartheimer’s remarks on patients. “Take their lessons forward,” she said. “Live the lessons they taught you.”

The white coat each graduate receives is a symbol of their profession, explained Susan LeLacheur, DrPH ’08, MPH ’89, PA-C, BS ’82, associate professor of physician assistant studies at SMHS. “It means you worked really hard and it means you know a lot of stuff, but most important, it means you have taken on a role to dedicate yourself each day to the care of your patients.”

In addition to cloaking the graduates with their new long white coats, PA faculty also presented awards to students for their distinguished academic achievement, leadership, and service. The Outstanding Student Awards were presented to Victoria Eskay and Leeann Kuehn. Several members of the graduating class were inducted into the Alpha Eta Honor Society, which aims for the promotion of significant scholarship, leadership, and contributions to the health professions.

“Today we graduate as physician assistants,” Hartheimer said. “But that’s not all we have achieved.”

Students in the program, coming from various backgrounds in the health professions, have become activists, innovators, free thinkers, and published researchers as a result of their hard work, he said reflecting on the time the class devoted to completing the program.

“We have come to understand medicine as a dynamic science,” he said. “But, we must challenge ourselves to see the practice of medicine as an art.”