New Stanford medical and physician assistant students put on white coats and received new stethoscopes at ceremonies marking the start of their programs.
August 29, 2019 - By Mandy Erickson
Wearing a red dress, a basket cap, abalone shell earrings and a mink pelt, Melissa Eidman strode up to the microphone during the School of Medicine’s white coat ceremony and announced her home town: Weitchpec, California.
Weitchpec, in the state’s far northwestern corner, is the home of her ancestors, the Yurok Tribe. Her accessories are traditional garb; the pelt is a family heirloom. Eidman grew up in Sacramento, but once she’s a fully trained physician, she plans to return to the Yurok reservation to care for its residents.
“I’m excited and honored to be wearing it,” Eidman said of the white coat, which had her name embroidered on it. The coat is new, but for Eidman, Stanford isn’t: She transferred as an undergraduate after spending years at a community college. “It’s been quite a long haul,” she said.
Ninety medical students donned white coats at the Aug. 23 ceremony outside the Li Ka Shing Center for Learning and Knowledge. In a separate ceremony earlier that afternoon, 28 students in the physician assistant program also put on white coats. The events marked the beginning of the students’ respective programs.
All students also received stethoscopes, gifts from the Stanford Medicine Alumni Association.
“By all accounts, you are among the most accomplished people on the planet,” Dean Lloyd Minor, MD, told the new medical students at their ceremony. “When you receive your coat and stethoscope, you’re showing your willingness to run toward crises and not away from them.”
The medical students hail from New York; Houston; and nearby Redwood City, California, as well as from Kazakhstan, Venezuela and England, among other places. The class of 2023 is among the most diverse in Stanford’s history, with 26% who identify as an ethnicity under-represented in medicine, 34% who were born outside the United States and 8% who are LGBTQ.
Many students said they would need to get used to wearing the white coat. “It feels really surreal,” said Ibtihal Elfaki, a medical student from Sudan and Chicago. “It’s something I’ve aspired to since high school.”
“The idea of being a medical student has been abstract for a long time,” said Samson Peter of San Mateo, California. “But this coat makes it all very tangible.”
They also felt the burden of responsibility that the white coat carries — “an overwhelming sense of accountability,” said Alexander Noonan, a student in the physician assistant program.
Speakers at both ceremonies acknowledged the students’ competitiveness, but cautioned that they must set that tendency aside if they are to learn and grow during their time at Stanford.
“Now is the time to work together and help each other out,” Zachary Stone, a third-year physician assistant student, said at the physician assistant ceremony.
Kimberly DeBruler, a third-year medical student, warned the new MD students that they would fail along the way. She also encouraged them to reach out to students who appear to be struggling. “Check on each other. Text that person who didn’t make it to the party, or who stopped coming to class,” she said.
Compassion and science
Faculty speakers reminded the students that caring for patients calls for compassion as well as scientific knowledge. Abraham Verghese, MD, professor of medicine and a bestselling author, told the physician assistant students that he learned the difference between healing and curing from his own physician assistant when he was practicing in El Paso, Texas. When the physician assistant took him to the home of a young man dying of AIDS, he asked, “What are we doing here?” She responded, “We’re not here to do anything. We’re just here to be with the patient.”
He realized that their visit signaled to the patient that his caregivers would not abandon him. In the days before there was an effective treatment for AIDS, he said, “We could heal when we could not cure.”
Arturo Molina, MD, president of the Stanford Medicine Alumni Association, described the relationship between physician and patient as “sacred.” He told the medical students that they would need to practice empathy.
“You will see patients who have had their dreams shattered by illness,” he said. “They will remind you not to take anything for granted.”
At the receptions after the ceremonies, as the new students started feeling more comfortable in their new garb, they said they were looking forward to the years ahead.
“I’m eager to get back to being with patients,” said PA student Alex Topmiller, who worked at a dermatology clinic before arriving at Stanford. “I can’t wait for the clinics.”
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