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What the White Coat Carries

Paola Mancera, an incoming first-year M.D. student at the GW School of Medicine and Health Sciences (SMHS), apologized as she wiped away a tear. “I’m trying not to cry this soon, but it is the most surreal experience,” she said, just before the White Coat and Honor Code Ceremony on Aug. 6. “Every night that I was not sleeping, every time that I was in the library, now I get to be here, and it has just been so fantastic.”

The annual ceremony, signaling the start of medical students’ education, is a rite of passage for budding health professionals; they formally don their white coats, sign the honor code, and pledge their commitment to medicine, with family, friends, and future colleagues as witnesses. For Mancera, the ceremony symbolized the culmination of years of hard work. “This has been the last eight years of my life, trying to get to this point, and it feels like a dream that I really don’t want to wake up from,” she said.

Her family immigrated to the United States from Bogota, Colombia, and Mancera, a graduate of the University of South Florida in Tampa, is the first among them to attend medical school. “For everything that my family had to go through, and my parents had to go through, to help me get here, it’s amazing,” she said. “Words can’t describe how fantastic it is.”

While Mancera’s family waited patiently in Lisner Auditorium for their daughter to slip into her white coat, Mancera and her classmates learned the deeper meaning behind the cloth identifying them as physicians. As ceremony speaker Kyle Kurland, B.S. ’15, a second-year M.D. student at SMHS, explained, the “crisp and immaculate” coat is more than just a piece of fabric. “The white coat carries with it a great deal of responsibility,” he said. “It serves as a constant reminder of our duty to our education, integrity, and patients. It signifies a steadfast commitment to medicine, a humble devotion to our craft, and a responsibility to the people who place their trust in us.”

Keynote speaker Nancy Gaba, M.D. ’93, RESD ’97, FACOG, Oscar I. and Mildred S. Dodek and Joan B. and Oscar I. Dodek Jr. Professor and Chair of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at SMHS, recalled that her white coat, at least at first, served as a catchall for all of the things she could possibly need: medical instruments, gloves, surgical tape, books and journal articles, pens and highlighters. Also tucked into one of the pockets was “the most precious item, the notebook I called my ‘auxiliary brain,’” she said. “I wrote down everything I thought might be important, such as what questions different attendings might ask you in the OR or the differential diagnosis for unusual complaints. Needless to say, my back and my neck hurt all the time.”

What Gaba found was that the coat was merely emblematic of who she was a doctor. “I have come to learn that it’s what’s inside your white coat — behaving civilly, treating others with respect and concern — that matters,” she said.

With Gaba and Kurland’s words in mind, the nearly 200 members of the Class of 2020 ascended the stage. While Rhonda Goldberg, M.A. ’77, associate dean for student affairs at SMHS, and Diane McQuail, M.A., associate dean for admissions at SMHS, introduced each student, Jeffrey S. Akman, M.D. ’81, RESD ’85, vice president for health affairs, Walter A. Bloedorn Professor of Administrative Medicine, and dean of SMHS, eased them into their white coats.

Each coat was donated by GW alumni physicians from across the country as part of the White Coat Initiative, an alumni-led effort that also provides students with educational resources, including iPads. Their support, Akman said, was “our way of saying welcome.”

After signing the pledge and shaking hands with Gaba; Lorenzo Norris, M.D., assistant dean for student affairs and assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at SMHS; and Lawrence “Bopper” Deyton, M.D. ’85, M.S.P.H., senior associate dean for clinical public health, students and their family and friends cheered.

“I feel great [about putting on my white coat],” said first-year M.D. student Chloe Harrington. “It’s just so overwhelming, honestly. It feels like I’ve just been waiting for this for so long … and it really is sinking in now that this white coat is so symbolic of our future medical career.”