Fourteen years ago I sat with my second year medical school class in the auditorium at the McIntyre Medical Building, the same room in which we learned anatomy, pathology, respirology, neurology, and a plethora of other things that formed the Basis of Medicine (as it was called back then, in my medical school years). However, on the day to which I am referring, we sat decked out in our best regalia, hair done, fancy shoes, and parents, family and friends close by. On the floor where our professors usually taught the intricacies of the human body, stood the Dean of Medicine and other important people in the Faculty. The room smelled like flowers and champagne, and the whispers all around filled the air like butterflies in a meadow.
Why were we gathered like this, not even close to our Convocation day still years away? In fact, we were celebrating a graduation of sorts; moving from our bookworm years into the world of clinical medicine. We were about to be given our White Coats, the symbol of the Physician for at least the last hundred years. Change was coming, and we were ready. We stood, donned the coat, and emphatically spoke the words of an oath binding us to our training and this life we had chosen. It was a day I won’t forget, because it felt momentous, life altering, and symbolic.
Today, I got to relive that special moment in time. I was invited, along with many colleagues, to participate in the White Coat Ceremony for the second year students. For the last year and a half I have been mentoring a group of six vibrant, intelligent, interesting students, who came into my life like a hurricane searching for land. From day one they have felt like one of my most important responsibilities; at each of our meetings we not only enjoy each other’s company but discuss important topics at that stage of their learning. As an Osler Fellow, I am meant to help guide them through these formative years. I feel so blessed to have been asked to do so, because not only am I helping them grow, they are helping me as well. Every time we meet, I feel excited. I feel my world broaden, my perspectives expanded, and I am challenged. I love it.
So today, as I sat in the second row of a packed ballroom full of family, friends and physicians, I reflected on how life comes full circle. I watched my students each climb the stairs to where a faculty member stood, and I felt pride as each donned the white coat in turn. I listened to inspiring speeches and a beautiful string quartet. I remembered my own ceremony, the students who stood with me to recite the words of our oath, the innocence and anticipation palpable like a warm campfire in the room. My heart also couldn’t help but think of the two students who stood with me that day, who no longer occupy a space on this earth, yet remain like a bright photograph etched in memory. The rest of my classmates, scattered across the world, now practice medicine or some other field of work, raising families, chasing dreams we began so many years ago.
The faces before me, bright, young, open, joyful, inspired me again with a love of this work we all do. Years ago I pledged myself as they did today, and I meant every word. Today, they spoke words that I hope they will remember and take to heart. They recited hopes to reflect humbly on the privilege of the position, “be guided by integrity, curiosity and humility”, recognize the limits of ourselves and of medicine, have courage to ask for help, focus on healing the person and not just the illness, hold dear the notions of trust and respect, and remember not to let the white coat itself separate us from our patients. This oath is beautiful, as it encompasses so much of the sacred nature of being a physician.
However, by taking a white coat on their shoulders, these students are accepting a mantle of responsibility that does not come lightly or easily.
The practice of medicine is hard. It is joy, light, invigorates us but can also destroy us if not approached with care. Learning to Doctor also means learning to doctor ourselves, to seek help when needed, to find ways to balance our personal and professional lives.
Learning to heal also means learning to know when to remove the figurative white coat and separate oneself from one’s career, to go home and drop it all, be present in your life that is outside medicine. Being a physician can be all encompassing, and for some this is the way life will go. But physicianship can also exist in equilibrium with the rest of non-medical life, and I hope the students today remember this as they move forward in their training.
As I moved around the room after the ceremony, meeting and speaking with the families of my students, my heart swelled. The smiles on the faces all around, the pride and happiness in the room, buoyed me as I stepped outside again and back to my own life. I thank my students, as well as the Faculty of Medicine, for giving me these exceptional experiences that continue to mold me into the best physician, teacher, mentor and person I can be, and for allowing me back into the world of a learner, even for just a few hours at a time.