When I first got my white coat, it was pristine. Ironed, even. Now, as a 3rd-year student who rushes out the door in the mornings and eats on the go, I notice granola crumbs caught in my pockets and tea-stained sleeves. The pockets are overflowing with UpToDate articles and printouts of USPSTF guidelines. Even my shoulders are feeling the weight of the reflex hammer, tuning fork, and stethoscope, all stuffed into the remaining spaces.
I’ve heard people say that you can tell a lot about a medical student by their white coat. From cleanliness to organization, from bits and bobs in between. A coat can show a student’s personality, too - stickers for kids, a light-up Batman that serves as a pen light, pins representing who they are and what groups they’re part of.
Last week, I witnessed 144 of these white coats all in one place. At a local church, I attended my school’s annual white coat ceremony - but this time, as a witness and supporter of the first-year students. The official name of the event is called “Ceremony of Commitment to Medicine.” I had actually never noticed that before - always assuming these events were called “white coat ceremonies.” This time, though, I saw it through the lens of 3rd-year. I could have been studying for my shelf exam, or catching up on my sleep. But the ceremony reminded me of many of the reasons why medicine is challenging but full of joy.
It was almost like a renewal of vows for me. A recommitment, a rededication to the calling laid out. Here are some things I was reminded of.
Medicine is a collective endeavor. As a fatigued 3rd-year student, it brought me great joy to see the first-year students’ faces light up with excitement. Sitting in the pews, I watched as each person’s name was called individually. Family and friends cheered loudly. Hearing the echoes of their joyful shouts and clapping showed me the importance of the people around us. It reminded me to honor loved ones who helped us get here, who helped us persevere through past trials, and who will help us through future ones. At the end, all the first-year students stood up and clapped to say thank you to parents, teachers, relatives and friends.
With great opportunity comes great responsibility. We must not forget that we must be good stewards of this position. Many people do not get the chance to learn about cardiology, hold a human heart in anatomy, partake in a surgery, meet a patient and take the time to feel their pulse. The white coat is like an entry card into some of the most privileged and privy spaces, both of institutions and of people’s lives.
We must not let the white coat define us. Medicine is not your singular identity. May we have the grace to know that this coat does not signify to the world your sole being. You are more than a medical student, more than a doctor-in-training. We have lives outside of medicine. The white coat is not the only piece of clothing in your closet.
Just as you put on the coat, put on kindness, too. Whenever I physically put on my white coat, I try to remember that it’s a metaphor for clothing myself with kindness. With compassion, humility, gentleness, and patience. I try to remind myself this as I get ready for the day.
Yes, there exists a complex relationship with white coats. It can be seen as a symbol of a patriarchal system, the kind of medicine where the patient has no autonomy. But I hope we can all remember to not let it be a symbol of power. Instead, let it be a symbol of service.
My younger brother is now one of those newly-coated students. Seeing medicine through his eyes has given me a fresh spirit of perseverance, a rekindling of the fire that I know is still within (despite burnout and systemic burdens trying to dampen it down). Seeing him and his new classmates reminded me of purpose and calling.
Bearing witness to this ceremony showed me how medicine is both a personal and collective commitment. Whenever I see a white coat in the halls of the hospital - even if it’s hundreds of feet away - I can tell they’re my classmate, my colleague, a fellow confidant in this world. I know I’m not alone, and I like to think we all have the same goals of learning a lot and helping our patients. They’re the kind of people who get it, or at least have some understanding of what we’re going through, the struggles and the highs and lows - and who understand if I haven’t done laundry yet. Perhaps they, too, have granola crumbs in their pockets.
Anna Delamerced is a medical student at the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University. Born and raised in Cincinnati, Ohio, she enjoys exploring the crossroads of writing and medicine, and listening to patients tell their stories. Anna is also a 2018- 2019 Doximity Author.