White Coat Ceremony Reflections
From the Class of 2024
The Best I Can Be
Wearing a white coat means a lot to me. Coming from an immigrant family from Ghana, being a medical student in the United States is a huge deal not only to me but to my entire family. It makes me feel that the many sacrifices my parents made for me to be here were not in vain. The white coat also reminds me of all the work I had to do to get here. As a black man especially in North Philly, the white coat shows to young people like me that it is possible to get here with hard work. I have noticed that people treat me with a lot of respect and listen to what I say because I have a white coat on! As a result, I have the responsibility to be well informed so I can best address the needs of those around me to the best of my ability. I must admit that I don’t feel ready for such high expectations and big responsibility but that’s why I’m here: to become the best I can be!
• • •
My Family Legacy
Throughout my entire life, there has always been a white coat in my vicinity. I grew up trailing after my mother in hospitals, watching her work as a physician. So, my childhood was surrounded by medicine: from afternoons coloring in her office as a toddler to summers spent volunteering at cancer wards as a teen.
I was raised on stories about my great-grandparents on my father’s side of the family,
both of whom were doctors in Cuba, and stories about what it was like for my mother as the first one in her family to be a doctor.
As a child, that white coat meant watching patients come up to my mom at grocery stores, movie theaters, and the mall to say, “Hi, Dr. Sanchez, my daughter’s blood sugar is doing really well” – then listing out what their child had for lunch that day.
To me, a white coat means making patients feel so comfortable and safe in your presence that they want to come up and talk to you in the middle of a store about their diagnosis and how they are managing it.
To me, the white coat is my family legacy. I’m lucky to have been raised on stories of female and minority physicians – from my grandmother who grew up in Cuba, raised by a female doctor – to my grandfather who grew up in Turkey and raised two children in the US to become doctors. To me, a white coat means becoming the physician my family believes I can be. And that I believe I can be.
To me, the white coat means days volunteering, afternoons spent working, and nights spent studying – all in the hopes of giving back to the communities that have given so much to me. It’s about being the type of doctor I wish everyone always has access to. It’s about being able to give patients the information they need to feel confident in taking care of their health.
I know that many communities have a distrust of white coats due to past actions of the medical community -- and that this distrust will be projected onto me. To me, a white coat means helping patients to trust again in the medical community. I hope to one day put on my white coat and feel I have achieved all that the white coat means to me.
• • •
When I put on my white coat, I reflect on the symbolism that it holds. Even though it may have yellow sweat stains, the white coat historically symbolizes the cleanliness and hygiene of the physician. Ironically, in Victorian England, the opposite held for surgeons: the dirtier and bloodier the white coat, the more experienced the surgeon. Indeed, much of this difference may be due to the fact that medicine and surgery were historically separate disciplines, but those days are behind us. The white coat symbolizes the fact that medicine is not just a profession, it is a vocation. Indeed, there are many roles in which one may wear a white coat (I recall my organic chemistry lab coat), however, to borrow some Derridean semiotics, there exists a gap between the signifier and the signified in the context of the medical field--the white coat of the physician is not just a matter of utility or safety. I should probably get my white coat tailored (it is a bit baggy around the stomach), but when I put it on, I realize that it will soon be a longer coat. I stand up a bit straighter, I try to avoid cursing, and it serves as a reminder that I am an apprentice in a field much bigger than me.
• • •
A Symbol of Growth
In medical school, the item that most consistently makes me feel like a future doctor is my white coat. The starched (and sometimes dirty) linen fabric of the white coat on my shoulders brings with it a unique energy. It brings energy of my personal mission in pursuing medical school: to care for and empower marginalized individuals through humanistic medical care. It also brings with it the responsibility of future lives being in my care. Sometimes it brings with it a burden of perfectionism and the anxiety of upcoming highs and lows in the medical profession. Sometimes it brings with it pride as I think of the tasks and challenges I have surmounted to get to this stage.
The symbolism of the white coat is, ultimately to me, growth. This white coat has seen me during the first days of medical school and it will see me on my last. It will see me in my moments of anxiety and my moments of pride. This white coat and I are on this path together and it will change as I myself change.
• • •
The Learning Coat
Like many other students have said over the years,
sometimes the white coat feels like a costume I am wearing.
Not a real coat worn by a real doctor at all.
So far, I’ve only seen standardized patients and actors.
And I have shadowed physicians on their rounds, so their patients aren’t actually my patients.
But they are real enough to me!
As I enter the exam room to see them, I sometimes stumble and hesitate.
Walking around the hospital, sometimes I feel like a nuisance.
A medical student, who can’t really help with anything, who gets in the way.
Yet I catch myself and tell myself to think rationally.
I remind myself that I have a responsibility, first and foremost, to learn.
I am here to learn and to help out as best as I can.
I know I won’t get everything right the first time, and that is okay.
I just have to embrace it and know that I will get better with time and experience.
I put on my white coat to learn how to be the best doctor I can be.
I try, I receive feedback, I reflect.
I see myself becoming the physician I know I can become:
A physician that patients can trust and confide in.
A physician patients can talk to and feel comfortable with, free to ask questions that have been on their minds.
A physician patients know will do her very best to help.
That is who I am in my white coat.
• • •
How I Got Here
Putting on a white coat reminds me of how I got here. For me, it’s not the work I’ve done, but the work my entire family has done. Having the success to get here is only half the battle, the other half is having the support to achieve this goal. I wouldn’t have gotten here without my dad spending 24 years in the military or without my mom making sure I always had everything I wanted or needed. I wouldn’t be here without my sister constantly pushing me to be better. I wouldn’t be here without the support of my aunts, uncles, and grandparents. I often think about the sacrifices my family made in their lives so the next generation would have an easier experience. Sometimes, I don’t want to put on my white coat. Sometimes, the stress is too much or I’m tired or I don’t even know if I deserve it. But then I think about them. I think about the cards my parents send me when I’m struggling telling me they are so proud. I think about the gift cards that end up in my inbox from my aunt and sister to help me through the week. I think about how my grandma keeps saying she hopes she’s still around to see the family’s first doctor. And then I remember, it’s not just me, it’s us.
• • •
White Coat Ceremony
(Program note: norigae is a decorative ornament or tassle symbolizing happiness, longevity, and fortune in Korean culture; jeogori is a shirt or blouse worn as part of a traditional Korean outfit.)
I weave norigae into my linen jeogori,
tie it tight around my chest
to bind a suffocating feeling
like anxiety like accomplishment
like a long journey coming
to a close and also just beginning.
In the breaking sun, my norigae
shines a rainbow of good luck,
a charm of wealth,
the wealth of my heritage
the richness of soil that birthed
the stories of my family.
My great-grandfather once wore a coat
that may have born likeness to the one
now hanging over my shoulders
in the midst of the Japanese occupation,
a westernized, Japanese version
of a physician, before being dragged
to North Korea during the Korean War
the 6-25 as we call it to forever
remember the day our families were severed
by war and imaginary line. My grandmother
almost wore a coat like this one,
following in the footsteps of her missing father,
but was married instead, pinned her hopes
on sons lost. She kept tucked away
the typeset calligraphy and pride
of her medical school admittance.
A wealth of stories lines the white
of this doctor’s coat I bear,
weigh down the fabric with their heft.
I wear them hidden in my coat but
also within facial features inherited
from my grandmother and great-grandfather
only if you know how to listen
to the heart of a legacy I carry close,
of mislaid hopes and family torn
and a dream kept aflame.
• • •
The other day when I put on my white coat, it occurred to me that I am my ancestors' wildest dreams. I am the first person in my family to graduate from college. My grandfather, who worked in the fields and only obtained an 8th-grade education, would be overjoyed to see me in my white coat. Every time I put on my white coat, my ancestors empower me to serve my patients as if they are my family.
I acknowledge the power associated with the coat, and I will work every day to uphold the profession's integrity. I will not only act as a practitioner, but I will also be a community leader and a fierce advocate for trauma-informed, evidence-based medicine and public health. With the power granted by my white coat, I will be able to mend physical and emotional wounds as well as provide hope for countless patients and their families. I am counting down the days until I can put on my white coat, walk into an exam room, and introduce myself as Dr. Martinez.