On Becoming a Doctor

Dean Johnson, Dr. Harrington, Alex Weller

Dean Cynda Ann Johnson and Dr. Daniel Harrington present Alex Weller with his white coat. (October 28, 2011)

“Ever since September 27, 2003, I’ve been on the path to becoming a physician,” a member of the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine’s Class of 2015 recently wrote. “On that Saturday afternoon, my mother suffered third-degree burns in a kitchen fire.”

It was while witnessing the compassion and wisdom of the doctor treating the burns that the student began to consider a career in medicine. “Although the event was traumatic for my family,” the student added, “every scar on my mother’s face now reminds me how medicine was able to return our lives to normal. As I put on my white coat for the first time, my mother’s and my family’s emotional scars will further heal.”

The student’s essay was just one of several that Dr. Cynda Johnson, founding dean of the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine, read during the White Coat Ceremony of the Class of 2015, which took place October 28.

The School of Medicine hosted the ceremony to celebrate the students’ entrance into the medical profession—and to remind them of the gravity of their undertaking. For several weeks leading up to the ceremony, the students participated in special “Into Your White Coat” sessions that were intended to convey the significance of the white coat to patients and the broader community. At the culmination of the sessions, the students all wrote essays on what receiving their white coats meant to them.

One student described shadowing a physician who was treating a terminally ill teenager. As the patient took a turn for the worse, the student witnessed the doctor’s efforts not just to ease the young woman’s pain, but also to tend to her emotional health and that of her family.

“It is my hope,” the student wrote, “that every time I wear my white coat I will also wear that memory to remind myself why I chose this career and what my role truly is as a physician.”

Dean Johnson identified a number of common themes across the essays, from the tangibility and intangibility of the white coat, to humanism, to journeys from past to future. “As I read the essays,” she said, “I was filled with emotions, from almost a haunting feeling to tears and laughter.”

Several of the students’ central refrains—including responsibility and teamwork—were also principal themes of the ceremony’s keynote speaker. Dr. Wayne Gandee, executive vice president and chief medical officer at Carilion Clinic, echoed the significance and responsibility of wearing a white coat.

“By willingly accepting the white coat,” he told the students, “you also accept the fiduciary obligation to put your patient above self and to be an advocate for patients and their needs.”

Gandee reminded students that one of their biggest responsibilities will be to make connections with patients, rather than letting the white coat erect a wall between them. “While we emphasize the science of medicine,” he said, “the art of medicine is in overcoming that white-coat barrier to care for the patient while taking care of the patient.”

Gandee also stressed how health care today is “based on collaboration, communication, and coordination.” Interprofessional teams, he said, are critical to the modern doctor’s success. “We all have a common purpose—to provide better patient care and better population health at a lower cost. By combining our different educational background backgrounds and clinical experience, we can achieve those goals.”

The ceremony culminated with a recitation by the students—and by all the physicians in attendance—of a modern version of the Hippocratic Oath. Dr. Mark Greenawald, associate dean for student affairs, then called the students one by one to the front of the auditorium to sign the school’s oath book, to don their white coats, and to receive “Humanism in Medicine” pins as symbols of their commitment to providing compassionate and high-quality medical care.

More than 200 guests, including the students’ family members and friends as well as faculty and staff of the School, attended the ceremony.

How Teams Are Built

Dr. Wayne Gandee, chief medical officer for Carilion Clinic, served as the keynote speaker for the White Coat Ceremony.


Class of 2015 Guiding Principles

The Class of 2015 developed a set of guiding principles. The principles will serve as guidelines for the students to follow throughout their time as medical students at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine as well as beyond when they go onto residencies and their practices as physician thought leaders.