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Class of 2018 dons white coats

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2014 - Spring

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“You are on the brink of living the richest life possible—the fulfillment found in healing and saving lives, as well as generating new knowledge for that same noble purpose,” said Thomas P. Duffy, M.D., professor of medicine, in his keynote address at Woolsey Hall as he welcomed the Class of 2018 to Yale during the White Coat Ceremony on August 14. For the past two decades, the ceremony has welcomed the first-year class with the donning of a garment that identifies them as new members of the medical profession.

The white coat has been an iconic symbol of the scientist for over a century, Duffy said, but when worn by the physician, the white coat takes on even more meaning. “It signifies attributes of both the healer and scientist,” he told the 104 first-year students. “It connotes the cleanliness of surgical technique and a purity of spirit linked to a firm foundation in science—a science that is always in the service of patients … never patients in the service of science.”

This year’s class was selected from a pool of 4,374 who applied. Fewer than 3 percent of those applicants made it to New Haven, but they still represent one of the most diverse classes in the history of the School of Medicine: 53 are women; 19 are from groups traditionally underrepresented in medicine; 15 hail from countries outside the United States. Many of them, like Lovemore Simbarashe Kuzomunhu and Belinda Juliana Nhundu, incoming students from Zimbabwe, will continue to expand Yale’s global reach. “I want to go back to my home country and improve the conditions there,” said Nhundu. Her classmate Kuzomunhu is all too familiar with the medical needs of his home country; when he was 17, he lost his younger sister to a brain tumor because his family couldn’t afford to pay a neurosurgeon. Since then, Kuzomunhu channeled his frustration with the doctors’ inability to save his sister into his education. “It actually turned into a passion, that maybe one day I’ll be able to be in a position to save people,” he said.

Like their classmates, Kushomunhu and Nhundu will be challenged to take charge of their own education in Yale’s immersive and independent learning environment. “You will be equipped or more correctly you will equip yourselves with a discipline of learning that will allow you to remain astride the galloping steed of advancing knowledge in medicine,” said Duffy.

With the passing of that torch of knowledge from one generation of physicians to the next, came the gift of a stethoscope, an instrument almost as old as the Yale School of Medicine itself, from alumni who have donated to the Yale Medicine Alumni Fund. “Hippocrates long ago exhorted the members of the profession to look upon their teachers as their fathers,” Duffy said. The stethoscope serves as not just a physical link between doctors and patients, but a symbolic link between students and teachers, mentors, and past generations of graduates of the School of Medicine. “My stethoscope remains my umbilical link to my teachers who handed on to me the oral tradition of medicine as your teachers will from this point onward.”

Nicholas Countryman, M.D., ’05, M.B.A. ’05, donated a stethoscope in honor of Nicholas P.R. Spinelli, M.D. ’44, who sponsored Yale’s first White Coat Ceremony in 1992 and was a classmate of Countryman’s grandfather at Yale. “Hopefully by giving the stethoscope in his honor, the student who receives it might better understand the many contributions that he made to Yale and medical education,” said Countryman.

At the ceremony, the new students slipped on their white coats for the first time, and joined the ranks of more than 200 classes that came before them. “Since Yale School of Medicine was established in 1810, the names of those who have walked these halls are astonishing,” said Dean Robert J. Alpern, M.D., Ensign Professor of Medicine. “And now you will walk these halls.” Alpern assured the students that any anxieties they may have had about belonging at Yale were unfounded: “If we do our job and you do yours, years from now students will walk the halls wondering if they belong in the same institution that trained the Class of 2018.”