From Students to Professionals: New Crop of Physician Assistants Dons Long White Coats

Professor putting white coat on student

Friends and family cheered and wiped away tears as members of the George Washington University (GW) Physician Assistant (P.A.) Class of 2017 donned long coats of dazzling white — a symbol of their transition from students to medical professionals.

“When you set out to become a P.A., your motivations may have been unique, but you each shared a common goal, which was to become a member of an elite, wonderful, service-oriented profession,” Karen Wright, Ph.D., P.A.-C., interim chair of Physician Assistant Studies and program director for the Physician Assistant Program at the GW School of Medicine and Health Sciences (SMHS), said at the start of the P.A. Long White Coat and Awards Ceremony on May 19.

“Over the past two to three years you’ve faced many challenges and triumphs,” she continued. “With each subsequent semester, the faculty and your clinical preceptors asked and expected more of you … and though it was rigorous, you rose to each and every challenge.”

The P.A. profession in the United States is celebrating its 50th anniversary, added Reamer L. Bushardt, Pharm.D., P.A.-C., DFAAPA, senior associate dean for health sciences at SMHS. “I’m very hopeful that with your character and your leadership, we’ll have another 50 wonderful years, and I hope you’ll have as much fun being a P.A. as I have,” he said.

Student speaker Derek Glazier, P.A. ’17, understands the fun side to the profession, noted Pratik Govind, P.A. ’16, in introducing his classmate. “He manages to find light in the darkest of places, and incidentally, he shares that with his classmates,” Govind said.

Proving Govind’s point, Glazier left the audience in stitches with tales of his journey to becoming a P.A. He recounted a time his wife helped him study from flashcards because he was feeling under the weather; the cards had the diagnosis on one side and symptoms on the other.  

“[She] was reading me the cards and said: ‘low abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting.’ I interrupted her before she gave me more clues … and said ‘I have this, this is my disorder!’ She flips [the card] over and with a puzzled look says ‘you have ovarian torsion?’” he quipped.

However, Glazier also recalled more serious moments caring for patients. One case he was involved with centered on a patient who was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and passed away shortly after. While Glazier said he had limited knowledge of non-Hodgkin’s and couldn’t help the family understand the disease better, they thanked him for the time he spent talking with them.

“Medicine’s like that,” Glazier said. “Sometimes it’s confidence and it’s humor, sometimes it’s just listening and serving those people who are 100 percent invested in whoever is your patient.”

Keynote speaker Jennifer Wall, M.S.P.A.S., P.A.-C., also spoke of the challenges of caring for others and having the confidence to help them no matter the barriers.

At 30 years old, Wall needed a “new challenge” and spent three months in rural Malawi, Africa, helping burn victims. “My first trip to Malawi was life-changing,” she said. “Of course, it was daunting and unfamiliar, even uncomfortable at times as I was learning to navigate a world that was completely foreign to me.”

However, the trip instilled in Wall a new passion for her profession. One case she assisted with involved a surgery to help a man who as a young boy fell into a fire and was left with an extensive scar that caused his lower lip to fuse to his upper chest. It was a daunting surgery, but one that Wall did not shy away from.

“You may think today that you could never take on such a reconstructive surgery, but the skills and knowledge you have learned here in the past two years have given you an early foundation,” she explained. “I say to you, do not be afraid to take risks. Find your passion in your profession, and go forth.”

The ceremony also featured student award presentations. Sandy Fulkerson Schaeffer, P.A. ’17, received the P.A. Outstanding Student Award, given to the student with the highest cumulative GPA and who showed leadership, service, and advocacy throughout his or her time at GW. In addition, Kevin Berry, P.A. ’17, who was unable to attend the ceremony, was announced the awardee of the GW VALOR Professional Grant, given by the Office of Military and Veteran Student Services to reimburse the cost of exams for designated credentials.

As the students waited in anticipation for the moment their white coats would be draped over their shoulders, Susan LeLacheur, Dr.P.H. ’08, PA-C, M.P.H. ’89, B.S. ’80, associate professor of physician assistant studies at SMHS, had one last bit of advice about the coats, which are funded by GW alumni donations.

“[The white coat] is not just a little piece of cloth, and you all know that. It’s a symbol,” she said. “Remember it’s not about you, it’s about something far greater.”

If you are interested in funding a white coat for the Class of 2018, please visit go.gwu.edu/pawhitecoat or contact Sarah Klein at smklein@gwu.edu.