At UB medical school’s white coat ceremony, diverse student experiences are celebrated
In keynote speech, surgeon traces the white coat’s surprising history
Release Date: August 22, 2014
BUFFALO, N.Y. – The leader of a forward surgical team in Afghanistan. A developer of tactile books for visually disabled children. A casting editor for Top Chef. An internationally acclaimed concert violinist. A software developer for a defense company.
These individuals and their classmates, a total of 144, whose experiences are just as diverse, participated in the white coat ceremony in the Center for the Art’s Mainstage Theater on August 15, as members of the class of 2018 of the University at Buffalo School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.
The class was selected from a pool of 4,201 applicants, up from the previous year’s pool of 4090, according to Charles Severin, MD, PhD, associate dean for medical education and admissions. It includes 126 residents of New York State and 18 from out of state. Thirty are UB graduates.
Most students majored in a scientific field but others majored in art history, accounting, performance studies, African and African American studies, anthropology and environmental studies, among others.
Some students have earned master’s degrees in fields ranging from public health to business administration, from music to nutrition. The students have won an impressive array of awards, including Howard Hughes Medical Institute scholarships, the Merck Award for Scholastic Excellence, a Gates Millennium Scholarship from the United Negro College Fund, a National Institutes of Health Diversity Grant and memberships in Phi Beta Kappa.
Many have assisted in medical clinics in Haiti, Peru, Belize, Darfur, Uganda, Kenya, Cambodia, Ecuador and many other countries.
During the ceremony’s “Calling of the Class”, students were called to the stage and presented with their coats, while their hometowns and undergraduate institutions were announced. Students received their coats from medical school administrators including Severin and Michael E. Cain, MD, vice president for health sciences and dean of the UB medical school, who gave the students his traditional counsel about the white coat: “You have earned the right to wear it. Now you must earn the right to keep it.”
The ceremony is the symbolic rite of passage shared by medical students across the U.S. to establish a psychological and unwritten ethical contract for professionalism and empathy in the practice of medicine. But it has a surprising history, according to the keynote address by Helen Cappuccino, MD, UB assistant professor of surgery and assistant professor of oncology, Breast Surgery Division, Department of Surgical Oncology, at Roswell Park Cancer Institute and an alum of the UB medical school.
She noted that until the latter part of the 19 century, physicians traditionally wore black “to reflect the somber nature of their work.”
In those days, she explained, calling a physician to a loved one’s bedside “was a prelude to death.”
But with scientific discoveries that proved the germ theory of disease and with hygienic advances, such as access to clean water, the practice of medicine came to be seen as a healing profession. By 1915, she said, surgeons and other physicians had adopted the white coat, with white being seen as the color of cleanliness and hope.
Even today, though, the white coat isn’t always seen in a favorable light.
“Today, there is talk of lab coats as being vectors for infection,” Cappuccino said, as physicians move from patient to patient. She also discussed ‘white coat syndrome,’ the phenomenon where some patients experience elevated blood pressure upon seeing the white coat.
Nevertheless, it is still a positive symbol, she said, citing studies that have found that 70 percent of patients, especially the elderly, prefer doctors that wear white coats.
Cappuccino added that the ceremony is a day when students are likely to experience deep feelings of gratitude for their parents, families and teachers.
“Maybe someone wrote a letter for you saying you would make a great physician even though you got a C minus in chemistry,” she said. “Hold onto those feelings of gratitude and think about paying it forward.”
During the ceremony, Kirk Scirto, MD, clinical assistant professor of family medicine at UB, volunteer medical co-director of Vive La Casa Refugee Shelter, and a UB medical school alum, was presented with the Leonard Tow 2014 Humanism in Medicine award.
The award, sponsored by the Arnold P. Gold Foundation, is presented annually to a UB faculty member who best demonstrates the foundation’s ideals of outstanding compassion in the delivery of care, respect for the patient, their families, and health-care colleagues, as well as demonstrated clinical excellence. Selection is determined by student nominations.
The class of 2018 white coat ceremony was sponsored by the John A. Wendel Endowment Fund, established by Virginia Wendel; the Medical Alumni Association; the Medical School Parents’ Council and the Arnold P. Gold Foundation.