The choice of a White Coat helper can be tough, but meaningful

First-year students single out one person to help on stage

By Kristen O’Reilly

UMass Medical School Communications

September 13, 2012
A Medical School student receives her white coat during the 2011 ceremony.

When first-year School of Medicine students cross the stage to be presented with the symbolic mantle of their profession at the White Coat Ceremony on Friday, Sept. 14, they will be helped by two people: a UMMS learning community mentor and another meaningful person in their lives they’ve chosen themselves—someone whose support they want to acknowledge in a very public way. Choosing that one person can be a tough decision for some students, but one that adds to the significance of the event.


Evan Gale chose his grandmother, Shoshana Gale, who is in her late 80s, to help him with his white coat because she is the matriarch of a family deeply involved in the health care field. A former social worker, she is the glue that keeps his family together, he said.

“I don’t want to speak for her, but I think she’s overjoyed. I’m so glad she’s up for doing it,” said Gale. “Whether she knows it or not, she was responsible for encouraging the critical thinking and discussions around health care in our family” that inspired him to become a doctor.

MD/PhD students Asia Matthew and her twin sister Ashley will be putting a twist on the tradition by helping each other with their coats.

“We’ve been together all our lives, even from the womb, so we’ve always had each other’s support. We decided we’ll robe each other to the finish,” said Asia. The choice provides some logistical issues as students and helpers are paired up prior to arriving on stage, so the sisters will receive special rehearsal time to iron out the details.

Sometimes deciding between two equally important people can be so difficult that it’s best to let them work it out themselves, as Gianna Wilkie discovered. She had her parents decide which of them would get the honored role.

“My mother told my father she has known me for nine months longer, so she should get to do it,” said Wilkie. “He agreed, but he said that this was the only time she could use this rationale for any future decisions.”

A relatively new tradition for medical students, the White Coat Ceremony was started in 1993 by the Arnold P. Gold Foundation at Columbia University College of Physicians & Surgeons. The tradition emphasizes the importance of both scientific excellence and compassionate care for the patient, according to the foundation.

This is only the third annual White Coat Ceremony for first-year students at UMass Medical School. The event starts at 3:30 on the campus green and includes a keynote talk by JudyAnn Bigby, MD, secretary of Health and Human Services for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

Dr. Bigby oversees 17 state agencies and serves in the cabinet of Governor Deval Patrick. Her broad range of experience—as a primary care physician, professor, researcher and health policy expert—gives her unique insight into how the state can best serve its people.

The white coats that will be presented on Friday are a gift from the SOM Class of 2012.