White coat ceremony marks start of medical school journey

White coat
Members of the School of Medicine Class of 2018 during the white coat ceremony Aug. 7, 2014
Aug. 8, 2014 - The 90 members of the Frank H. Netter MD School of Medicine's Class of 2018 received white coats and stethoscopes on Aug. 7 and lots of inspiration to start their journey from medical students to physicians.

President John L. Lahey told the group, selected from more than 5,200 applicants, that they enter the field at one of the most challenging and transformative periods in the history of health and medicine.

School of Medicine Dean Bruce Koeppen noted they are not here to compete against each other, but to learn from each other. "Medicine today is a team sport, and you must learn to behave as members of a team," he said.

Dr. Kristine M. Lisi, director of the Family Health Center at St. Vincent's Medical Center in Bridgeport, Connecticut, the medical school's principal clinical partner, delivered the keynote address. She told students the white coat symbolizes knowledge, professionalism, purity and cleanliness, but also can initiate fear and can be a barrier between doctor and patient.

"But don't let it. You define your white coat, it does not define you," she said. While professors can teach the science of medicine, where problems can be solved with almost no emotion, nobody can teach the art of medicine, she said.

Lisi told the story of a favorite patient whom she'd gotten to know over many years of treating her. One day, Esther, a wife, mother and grandmother, came in with back pain. "She looked me straight in the eye, and I just knew it was more than mechanical back pain. She was hurting and trusting me to help her. I knew this from my heart, from instinct."

Red flags popped up during questioning. "Besides unintentional weight loss, the patient said the pain was stopping her from doing the things she loved to do--usually a telltale sign of a problem, Lisi noted. 

The news was bad--pancreatic cancer. Lisi found her a specialist. "I bridged her to the next phase and called frequently to check on her over the course of her treatment."

But, Lisi said, "The train was rolling, and she got worse. Science could not help her...however the art of medicine still could." Lisi continued to call Esther and her husband to check in. One day, the husband called to say she had died. "I told him what an amazing and inspirational woman she was and how fortunate I was to meet her," Lisi said.

He related that on her deathbed, Esther asked him to give Lisi two plants and two books. Lisi was touched. She realized that however powerful medicine could be, it could not help her care for this patient physically.

"But I did help spiritually and mentally. This relationship had an impact on both of us. And that's what my white coat means to me."

Watch a video from the ceremony