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Yale PA Online Students Gather for White Coat Rite of Passage

March 17, 2023
by Abigail Roth

“I can tell you from experience that being a PA is a wonderful profession. The work you will do matters. You will make a difference in someone’s life every day.” Alexandria Garino, PhD, PA-C, associate dean for PA Education at Yale School of Medicine (YSM) shared these thoughts with the YSM Physician Assistant (PA) Online class of 2025 at their White Coat Ceremony. Family and friends filled Battell Chapel on March 15 to celebrate the 57 students who are about to begin their clinical training. While the students are from 30 states around the country, they were gathered on the Yale campus for their first of three one-week immersions.

PA Online faculty members who serve as advisors to the students, including acting director Elizabeth Roessler, MMSc, PA-C, helped their advisees don their white coats. Each student also received a pin depicting the YSM crest, which is to serve as a reminder that although far from campus, they are student ambassadors and will maintain close ties to Yale as alumni, always representing and connecting with Yale across the country.

Rite of passage

Garino characterized the White Coat Ceremony as “a rite of passage,” explaining the “milestone ceremony and the white coat are reminders that caring for patients is a privilege and an honor.” She noted that with the privilege comes the responsibility to hone one’s skills and strive to be an outstanding clinician, and described an outstanding clinician as “a PA who brings science, evidence, good clinical sense, and compassion to every patient. The outstanding PA puts the patient’s needs before their own needs.”

Keynote speaker Mary Elliott, PhD, PA-C, a 2021 graduate of the PA Online Program, shared that the tradition of the White Coat Ceremony began in 1993, at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, to address a growing concern that medical students and doctors were so immersed in health care technology that they viewed their patients not as humans, but as cases and numbers. “The ceremony was therefore conceived as a symbolic reminder: The white coat identifies us as medical professionals who prioritize patient-centered care and humanism,” she explained.

Elliott, whose PhD is in English, wove literary references throughout her remarks, which revolved around the theme of humanism in medicine. Noting this is broad term, she continued, “In its simplest terms, humanism is synonymous with kindness and compassion and responsibility. It’s how you treat people, individually and collectively. Humanism is about drawing upon our knowledge of the sciences together with the arts to make our lives and others’ lives meaningful and beautiful on both an individual and planetary scale.”

The complexity of humanism in medicine

She told a few stories about Dr. Harvey Cushing, to demonstrate that “Humanism in medicine is not always easy, and not always apparent, especially when it comes to truth and beauty in human relationships.” She shared that the night Cushing’s son died in a car accident, he called his wife to tell her, then performed a successful brain surgery, and then left to identify his son’s body.

“The heartbreaking story of Dr. Cushing’s cool proficiency in the center of utter devastation represents, for me, the complexity of humanism in the medical field,” she said. “His story shows that medical professionals can be hard on colleagues, families, and themselves while advocating for compassionate patient care.” When focused on work, Elliott said, “we can lose sight of what we love, whom we love, and who we are. It's all too easy to detach from ourselves and the bigger picture.”

Elliott then asked the students to reflect. “On this day we’re invited to remind ourselves not only why we’re going into medicine, but who stands beside us. Who are your humans? Who keeps you honest? Who makes your life beautiful? And how will you channel that truth and beauty—that human connection—as you don your white coats and enter the field of medicine as part of the eternal process of becoming who you are called to be?”

In closing, Elliott focused on the importance of humanism in medicine to the students as individuals and to their patients. “Check in with your humanism and recalibrate with the universe—and stash the poetry, music, lux et veritas you find on your journey right beside your Maxwell and your stethoscope in those generous white-coat pockets. Let your white coat reflect the spectrum of restorative energy and light that your patients need as much as that oxygen or IV infusion.”

Submitted by Abigail Roth on March 17, 2023