August 19, 2015

Van Wagoner delivers keynote address at annual White Coat Ceremony

Written by
RS13078 Nicholas Van Wagoner 11RT scrBelow is the full text of the speech delivered at the 2015 White Coat Ceremony by Nicholas Van Wagoner, M.D., Ph.D., assistant dean for Students in the School of Medicine. 

Thank you, Dean Vickers, and thank you Class of 2019, for the honor and privilege of standing before you today.

It is truly inspiring to see you as a group surrounded by family, friends and loved ones. You worked hard to get into medical school, but so did the folks who surround you today. They have helped to make this moment possible and will continue to help you over the next four years. They have sacrificed, and will continue to sacrifice, for you and your chosen profession. Just as you will serve as a source of strength for your patients, your loved ones who surround you today and celebrate with you will serve as sources of strength and comfort for you in the years to come.

In a few moments, you will don your White Coat for the first time. It is a simple act, but represents one of the most important moments in your professional life. With this coat comes great responsibility, and also great satisfaction.  In your White Coat you will care for your patients and improve the quality of their lives—even save lives.

Because of you, infants with congenital diseases will reach adulthood and raise their own families. Because of you, those who are unable to walk, will walk. Because of you, those with once fatal diseases will live long, healthy lives. In your White Coat, you will help your patients and their families through many life changing events, helping them to understand the significance of a diagnosis of cancer, and sometimes, when no cure is available, ensuring their comfort and dignity in the last moments of life. In your White Coat you will make scientific discoveries that will change the course of medicine. Over the next four years, you will learn the Practice of Medicine in your White Coat.

Today, your White Coat is light. But it has big pockets, and if you are like most medical students, those pockets will become filled with “stuff:” a stethoscope that will help you hear inside of your patient -- an apt metaphor for your role as listener. Cicero said, “Silence is one of the great arts of conversation”. And, just as you need to be silent to hear a beating heart, to truly understand your patient, you have to be silent and listen. The use of your stethoscope also requires that you touch your patient. The human touch shows concern, calms the anxious, and, although it may not cure, it can heal.

In your White Coat, you will carry books, electronic tablets and smart phones with apps and quick links to medical resources. These tools will supplement the foundational knowledge that you will gain over the next two years—so hunker down and study hard now.

In your White Coat, your pockets will be filled with papers, and more papers, with “to do lists”, patient labs, and notes from patient histories and physical examinations. Your patients will share with you their most personal information. They will share this information so that you can help them and trust you to help them, but, in the process, they will become vulnerable. Treat this information with respect. Maintain their privacy. And, even when you don’t agree with the choices that your patients will sometimes make, care for them as you would your own family.

In your White Coat, you will carry pens and pen lights, reflex hammers, tuning forks, otoscopes, ophthalmoscopes, Power Bars and candy bars. For some of you, you will have all of these in your White Coat at once. But always remember, that the most important thing that you carry in your White Coat is you.

Your patients’ well-being depends upon your well-being. Take care of yourselves physically, mentally and emotionally, and recognize that it is your responsibility to care for each other, for us, and for the profession of medicine. In our White Coats, we represent each other.

Treat your White Coat as a cloak of compassion, of professionalism, of truthfulness and honesty—both with your patients and yourself. And when you fall short, as we all do, forgive yourself and vow to do better.

In the words of Dr. Tinsley Harrison, the first chairman of our Department of Medicine, “No greater opportunity, responsibility, or obligation can fall to the lot of a human being than to become a physician.” This is what your White Coat represents. As you don your White Coat for the first time today, and begin on your path as physicians in training, please remember: it never truly comes off again.