A powerful and empowering symbol of the medical profession was passed to the 162 members of the School of Medicine Class of 2021 at the White Coat Ceremony on Friday, Sept. 15, before a joyful crowd of family, friends and faculty under a tent on the campus green.
“This is the first time that the community and our family and our friends get to see us as doctors. It feels really good,” said class member Benjy Tannenbaum. “The white coat is symbolic of the fact that we’re supposed to be here, and that we’re going to take the responsibility that comes with it seriously.”
At UMass Medical School, the white coat is placed upon each student’s shoulders by individuals who represent the value system of the school and the new profession into which these students are about to enter. Each student is cloaked by her/his Learning Community mentor and an individual significant in his/her personal or professional development. Tannenbaum was cloaked by his father and by Tatnuck House Learning Community mentor Timothy Gibson, MD, associate professor of pediatrics.
Chancellor Michael F. Collins said the event emphasizes the importance of scientific excellence and compassionate care for the patient. Initiated by the Arnold P. Gold Foundation in 1993 at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, the White Coat Ceremony, or a similar rite of passage, now takes place at more than 90 percent of schools of medicine and osteopathy in the United States.
“You will, undoubtedly, wear many white coats during your professional career, but each one will symbolize your professionalism, the virtue of your medical calling, the trust that defines the physician–patient covenant, and the recognition that it is a privilege for us to care for our patients, not a privilege for our patients to be cared for by us,” said Chancellor Collins, welcoming the class to the UMMS community. “To wear this white coat means you have chosen to dedicate your lives to the needs of others.”
In the keynote address, School of Medicine Dean Terence R. Flotte, MD, the Celia and Isaac Haidak Professor of Medical Education, provost and executive deputy chancellor, compared the white coat and the oath to an engagement ring, symbolic of an important and lifelong commitment.
“By deciding to enroll in medical school, we are making a profound commitment, a commitment to our patients and their families,” Dean Flotte said. “It is in this way, in the act of commitment, that the white coat takes on the meaning similar to an engagement ring. Just as, during an engagement, we are committed to our future spouse, during medical school we are committed to our patients.”
Flotte said when the students wear their white coats, they are making a promise to their patients to “be what they need us to be, and in helping them through crises of birth and death and everything in-between, to apply our scientific knowledge of human biology and disease in a way that provides them with the most effective means to live healthy and fulfilled lives.”
Springfield native and UMass Amherst graduate Kevin White is a member of the inaugural cohort of medical students enrolled in the Population-based Urban and Community Health (PURCH) track offered at the new UMMS-Baystate regional campus in his hometown. “Wearing the coat is empowering,” said White. “It gives us more responsibility because people will see us in a different light with this coat on. I’m welcoming that challenge.” White, a member of the new Brightwood House Learning Community of PURCH students, was cloaked by his mother and by his mentor, Samuel Borden, MD, associate professor of medicine at UMMS-Baystate.
After donning their new white coats, the Class of 2021 recited the Oath of Maimonides.
“Taking the oath means a lot to me,” said Laura Schwartz of Framingham, also a member of Brightwood House in the PURCH Track. “It addresses what it is to be a doctor, speaking to it as a vocation and a responsibility, and talks about seeing your patients as ‘fellow creatures of suffering,’ putting us with them on the same plane.”
The Class of 2021 is the largest in the School of Medicine’s history, comprising 70 men and 92 women from across the commonwealth and, for the second year, from across the country. Twenty-two students are enrolled in the innovative PURCH track, which will train them to be primary care doctors in urban and rural community health.
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