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White Coat Ceremony Marks Transition to Clinical Practice for 81 YSM PA Online Students

March 16, 2021
by Abigail Roth

“This video shows the support involved in your education.” Associate Professor James Van Rhee, MS, PA-C, director of Yale School of Medicine’s (YSM) Physician Assistant Online (Yale PA Online) Program, made this remark during the March 12, 2021 White Coat Ceremony for the PA Online Class of 2023, the program’s fourth cohort. The comment was in response to a video montage of images of each of the 81 members of the class putting on their white coat, often with the help of family or friends. The wide variation of landscapes in the backgrounds of students’ videos vividly portrayed the geographic diversity of the class, which has students from 26 states, almost a quarter of whom live in rural communities. Because the White Coat Ceremony had to take place virtually due to COVID-19 restrictions, the video was created to substitute for the past practice of YSM faculty “coating” each student in a ceremony on Yale’s campus.

In her welcoming remarks to students and their families and friends, YSM Deputy Dean for Education Jessica Illuzzi, MD, MS, professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences, noted that the geographic diversity of the class is in keeping with Yale’s goal when it created the program — to provide an outstanding education to aspiring physician assistants located in their home communities, both to expand access to the program and to help fill our country’s great need for primary care. She added that the COVID-19 pandemic has acutely highlighted this need.

The White Coat Ceremony took place after the students had completed 10 weeks of didactic training and just before they start their Clinical Experience in Early Didactic, during which each student will gain at least 120 hours of patient care experience throughout the rest of their didactic year, under the mentorship of a preceptor and working in an interdisciplinary team in their home community. Illuzzi shared with the students that the white coat “reminds us that we are enormously privileged to care for other human beings. It is a symbol of professionalism, trust, and the highest commitment to caring for our patients.” Additionally, she stated that “when we care for patients, we can never forget that they, like all of us, are multidimensional individuals not just a person presenting with various symptoms to be diagnosed and treated.” She encouraged the students to get to know their patients as individuals, because that will enable them to provide better and more compassionate care.

The keynote speaker, Benjamin Doolittle, MD, MDIV, associate professor of medicine and of pediatrics, director of internal medicine pediatrics residency program, and associate professor of religion and health, Yale Divinity School, framed his comments around the impact of COVID-19 on medical providers. He told a story about a pediatric intern on his team who, on April 30, 2020, had to facilitate five “video visits,” so that families could engage remotely with their loved ones before they passed away from COVID-19, and then had to sign five death certificates. Doolittle said that the next day, his team went to the strangely deserted Atrium of Yale New Haven Hospital for coffee and to reflect on the death and chaos they were experiencing. The intern mentioned he had been a concert pianist before going to medical school and began playing a beautiful rendition of Hungarian Rhapsody, which Doolittle captured on his phone and shared a clip of in his keynote remarks. Doolittle remarked, “on the hardest day of his life, he gave this extra gift.” He then quoted Rumi, “wherever you stand, be the soul of that place.”

Turning to the white coat, he noted the students had earned the right to wear it based on their past accomplishments adding, however, that what makes them worthy of the white coat is their capacity to care, to love, and to be the soul of healing wherever they are.

Toward the end of the ceremony, Yale PA Online Assistant Professor Adjunct Mary Showstark MPAS, PA-C, asked the students to come off of mute to together recite the Physician Assistant Professional Oath. While the 81 voices were not quite in unison, leading to some humorous comments in the chat, the words reflected the class’s unity in their commitment to the profession as they enter this next phase of their PA education.

Van Rhee closed the ceremony reminding the students to support each other, to believe in themselves, and to trust the process. He also told them not to forget to prioritize their health and their families, many of whom had joined the ceremony virtually from across the country. Van Rhee concluded by saying, “it’s not the white coat that provides comfort, it’s the person inside it.”

Submitted by Abigail Roth on March 16, 2021