“I am so glad to be together this time.” James Van Rhee, MS, PA-C, program director of the Yale School of Medicine (YSM) Physician Assistant (PA) Online Program, said in his opening remarks at the March 18 White Coat Ceremony for the 80 members of the PA Online Class of 2024. It was the first White Coat Ceremony the program was able to hold in person on the Yale campus since March 2019, because of COVID-19 restrictions.
The ceremony capped the first-year PA Online students’ week-long campus Immersion, following 11 weeks of online coursework and classes. The students, who live in 28 states, had to spend their initial weekend in New Haven in quarantine, in accordance with Yale’s COVID-19 protocols. They then had three full days of hands-on learning, divided between the anatomy lab and practicing patient assessment in YSM’s clinical skills suite.
Anatomy Lab and Patient Assessment Experiences
Reflecting on the anatomy lab, first-year student Cyntia Andrade Santamaria expressed her gratitude to those who had donated their bodies, and their families, for helping her and her classmates learn and understand the human body. “Their sacrifice has made it possible for many health care workers to become better members of the medical community.” She added that the PA Online Program’s anatomy course, patient assessment training, and problem-based learning had all helped her prepare for the experience in the anatomy lab.
“This has been so different than what we've done online,” first-year student Meagan Robbins said, “but I felt ready to put what we've learned in lecture to use, particularly in patient assessment. It has been great to work on skills and get tips and tricks from our professors.”
While classmates had bonded, virtually, since early January, first-year student Clair-Djinie Bazar said, “There’s just something about seeing everyone in person and being able to interact with one another. Yes, we create bonds and connections, but we strengthen those connections in each other’s presence. We all come from different backgrounds, and it was nice to see how we built off each other when practicing skills and in the anatomy lab.”
Robbins echoed this theme, describing how “everyone is trying to help out others and learn from each other. For such an intense learning environment there hasn't been any competitive behavior. I feel like everyone is cheering each other on.”
For Andrade Santamaria, it was “an honor” to be on campus with the “talented and diverse” 2024 cohort community. She noted that the PA Online faculty, staff, and students have different cultures, backgrounds, and come from 28 different states as well as different parts of the world. “This makes us a unique group with many different perspectives.”
Additionally, Andrade Santamaria, who was an ophthalmic technician before PA school, explains that during the pandemic, “I found the need to expand my skills to help as much as I can in a world that needed more healers. That's when I learned about physician assistants and decided that would be the best way to provide care for my community.” Listening to her classmates’ experiences and sharing hers during Immersion “reassured me that I have picked the correct profession and the right program.”
The students soon will begin Clinical Experience in Early Didactic—spending several hours each week through the end of their didactic year engaged in clinical work in or near their home communities, for a total of over 120 patient care hours. The White Coat Ceremony was timed to mark this transition to patient care.
White Coat Ceremony
The ceremony keynote, Associate Professor of Medicine Lisa Sanders, MD, told the audience—which included students, faculty, and staff in Mary S. Harkness Auditorium and about 250 family and friends watching online— that she was a member of the first YSM MD class to hold a White Coat Ceremony. She shared her vivid memory of the then YSM dean, Gerard Burrow, MD, telling the class that they would learn so much in medical school that it would feel overwhelming, but that one half of what they would learn would be wrong, but no one could tell them which half because they did not yet know. Sanders previously had viewed medicine as a giant snowball of facts and truths that was continually growing, which she had planned to master. She said in that moment she began to realize that science and medicine are constantly changing, deleting, and updating, with every discovery. While this constant change is scary, Sanders expressed that it is also an exciting opportunity to improve how we care for patients and get closer to getting it right every day.
Turning to the COVID-19 pandemic, Sanders shared her gratitude for the health care professionals who have been on the front line for two years, and to those, like the PA Online Class of 2024, who despite all the uncertainty and risks of the pandemic—or for some because of those risks—have decided to become health care professionals. “I’m impressed, moved, and really proud.”
Sanders also pointed to how much has changed in health care over the past two years and what she hopes will be a great reshaping of medicine, which this class would be part of. But she emphasized that the role of health care providers does not change, which is to care for patients.
Sanders and Van Rhee both emphasized to the students that contrary to how the imposter syndrome may make some of them feel, they do belong at Yale School of Medicine. The Immersion helped solidify this message. Reflecting on Immersion week, Bazar said, “It was so surreal being on campus and a great reminder that we are a part of this institution and that all 80 or so of us belong and deserve to be here.”