White Coats Symbolize Hope as Med School Freshmen Start Journey

By Amy Widner

Charles Matthew Quick, M.D., the keynote speaker for the 2020 College of Medicine White Coat Ceremony held Aug. 7, kept bringing it back to hope as he spoke to the 174 incoming freshmen, faculty, family and friends. Quick is a surgical pathologist and one of the module directors for the medical school’s second-year program.

“Wow, what a time to enter medicine,” Quick said. “There’s a lot going on in the world right now, and whether it’s viral, political, social or otherwise, it strikes me that this is the opportune moment to make really substantial changes in ways that will truly have an impact on patient lives. And if I know anything about your generation, it’s that you guys see it too. I’m really excited and hopeful for the future of medicine and to see what you will do.”

Dr. Quick at the podium

Charles Matthew Quick, M.D., gave the keynote address, urging the freshmen to work hard and do their best as students and be patient listeners as physicians.Bryan Clifton

Traditionally, the event welcomes the new class of medical students by ceremoniously allowing them to put on their white coats for the first time, one-by-one, assisted by family and mentors on stage before a crowd of 1,500 or more onlookers. This year, the White Coat Ceremony was held virtually because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the students took turns taking the spotlight from home while the event was streamed online.

Of doctoring, Quick advised the students to be patient, to spend time talking to their patients and building relationships. He said to always remember that as a physician, you’re often treating the patient’s family in addition to the individual. Everyone is depending on you, and a kind demeanor or extra time can mean a world of difference to a worried family.

“The white coat is not just a piece of clothing,” Quick said. “When you put this on, this white coat can invoke feelings just by entering an exam room. Think of a time when you’ve been sick, nervous, sitting in an exam room on that lovely crackly paper, feeling kind of bad – and then the doctor comes in and starts to talk and you get a feeling of hope. You get a feeling that things are going to get better.”

Family hugging in white coats

While the faculty gathered on campus, the students remained at home and took turns putting on their white coats via a live video link.Bryan Clifton

Of medical school, Quick said to buckle down and prepare for a lot of hard work and incredible relationships with faculty and peers. He urged them not to neglect their families and to appreciate the adventure ahead as they unravel the mysteries of the human body and learn to heal – maybe even save a life.

“But most importantly, you’re joining a brotherhood and a sisterhood of people so passionate about helping others and about doing good that they will sacrifice years of their life and sometimes even their own personal health and safety to help others and to bring good into the world,” Quick said.

Dr. Patterson at podium

UAMS Chancellor Cam Patterson, M.D., MBA, advised the students to think of their white coats not as a status symbol, but as a sign of their dedication to the collective goal of promoting health and health care.Bryan Clifton

When it came time for the students to put on their coats, they first recited the medical student oath together, led by College of Medicine Associate Dean for Academic Affairs James Graham, M.D., pledging to conduct themselves with integrity, compassion, collaboration and a commitment to medicine. The students then took to the screen one at a time as representatives of their respective “houses” – smaller groups the students stay in throughout medical school for peer support and faculty guidance – called their names and they were assisted by family and mentors at home in donning their white coats.

The students also heard from UAMS Chancellor Cam Patterson, M.D., MBA; College of Medicine Dean and UAMS Executive Vice Chancellor Christopher T. Westfall, M.D.; and Chad Rodgers, M.D., president of the Arkansas Medical Society. Sara Tariq, M.D., associate dean for student affairs, led the ceremony.

Dr. Westfall at the podium

College of Medicine Dean and UAMS Executive Vice Chancellor Christopher T. Westfall, M.D., told the students a story about being on the patient side of an interaction, and how the doctor’s white coat — and everything it symbolizes — helped to ease his fears.Bryan Clifton

Patterson said the white coat is a powerful emblem that unites physicians past and present in a dedication to science, professionalism and public health. He said it is not a status symbol, rather a sign of sacrifice.

“By wearing this white coat, we give up those things that are individual about ourselves so that we can share in this collective sense of promoting health and health care,” Patterson said. “This white coat is among the most respected symbols of equity that we share in the medical profession. I hope all of you remember that this white coat is a symbol of the fact that all of our patients are the same in the waiting room.”

Westfall told the students about his experience during the birth of his first grandchild, when the tables were turned and he was on the patient side of the experience instead of the doctor. Things got serious for his daughter, but Westfall recalled feeling more relaxed when the doctor walked in, even though she was a resident still in training.

Masked student and mentors clapping“I was relieved because I knew that everything that can could be done would be done to help my daughter to deliver a healthy baby,” Westfall said. “How did I know? Partly because she was at a university medical center. But a big part of it was because she wore that white coat and what it symbolized. It assured me that I could put my trust in her to do everything she could and to ask for help when she needed to.”

The doctor took charge, and Westfall settled into his role as grandpa and watched the staff do their work.

“I felt better. And isn’t that what being a doctor is all about? Making people feel better?” Westfall said. “I’m pleased to tell you that Mom is doing great. My grandson – the little feller has started to walk and he can’t stop smiling, and neither can I.”