(Editor’s note: This post is a speech given at the White Coat Ceremony for the Class of 2017, in August 2013)
It’s been three years now and still, every quick weekend trip back home always begins with a frantic call from my mother just as I’m heading out my apartment door.
“Make sure you don’t forget to bring your white coat!” she reminds me.
“Don’t worry,” I appease her. “Like always, I’m bringing ALL my laundry so I’m sure it’s stuffed in there with my scrubs and everything else.”
Yes, my laundry makes the trip back to Dallas with me every couple of months (parents, I can sense you cringing) and no, I don’t feel too guilty about it…because as long as my mom gets to clean my white coat, she won’t ever complain about the time and energy she has to put into running multiple loads of soiled hospital clothes.
With that, first years, as you don your white coats tonight, we welcome you to the Baylor family. That article of clothing for which you have been so eagerly waiting represents far more than you could have ever imagined. On those long days of general surgery, running from OR to OR, the endless pockets stuffed with granola bars and bananas are your only means of sustenance.
During those never-ending days of drudgery as you trek through mounds of PowerPoints and textbooks with absolutely no patient contact, seeing your white coat hanging proudly in your closet is a nice reminder of what exactly you’re working towards. As you suffer extreme weather changes going from the heat and humidity outdoors into the subzero temperatures of our hospitals, your coat will conveniently cover up pit stains and shield you from the arctic blasts of the AC vents. On those late nights after a grueling ICU call, the coat announces to the world that indeed you do have a legitimate reason for the baggy eyes and disheveled hair. Topped off with a stethoscope around your neck, the white coat, short though it may be, commands a certain respect from patients along with unexpected calls of “Hey, Doc…DOC!” down the halls of Ben Taub to which you don’t respond for a good thirty seconds because, really, who could mistake YOU for a doctor, right? And on patient rounds at 6 in the morning when the nurse begins to reprimand you for an incorrectly dosed medication order, you can hide behind the shortness of the coat and mutter, “Sorry, I’m just a med student.”
The beauty of that white coat is that though it gets dirty, creased and torn in all the worst places, it somehow manages to grow with you. The amniotic fluid, blood and vomit that will inevitably stain your coat tell a story of the intense energy, dedication and passion that you will put into your patient care. You’ll enter the hospital wearing your white coat on the first day trembling just a little under the weight of the responsibility you will come to bear and somehow, magically, a few years later you’ll emerge a confident clinician…admittedly still a little fuzzy on the details of G-protein coupled receptors but fully competent and committed to providing impeccable medical care to the people whose lives lay, quite often literally, in our hands.
Your white coat will be with you to soften the blow when you lose your first patient and it will be there, as luck would have it, to be your sole witness when you totally nail every answer to a particularly painful pimping session with that notorious attending on the only occasion that your fellow students weren’t, of course, all gathered around. You’ll have many coats throughout your life, but this one is bound to be your favorite.
This is the coat you wear while you’re suspended in between worlds, given the opportunity to explore and experience and yet shielded from the harsh responsibilities and realities of practicing medicine under your own precious medical license.
So wear it with pride; it’s a symbol of all that has come from the agonizing hours of your undergraduate coursework and all that has yet to come with the excruciating hours of training you will soon endure. But with that white coat, it’s all worth it…every single second. And when things get a little rough, take a break and head home for a couple of days, laundry in tow.
Trust my word, for me there is very little that is more endearing than watching my sweet mother lovingly hand-wash, air-dry and steam-press my white coat. For both her and I it is a labor of love and a regular reminder of the countless lives that I am touching and the childhood dream that I am slowly but surely achieving. Whatever you do, don’t lose that sense of wonder that us upperclassmen can recognize in your eyes. Don’t forget who you were as you strive to become the physician you aspire to be.
Congratulations, Class of 2017…you totally deserve it!