As I was standing in my apartment building’s laundry room scrubbing away at a stubborn coffee stain, I kept up a steady stream of curses at my white coat. In the seven weeks since I’d first donned it, my coat had apparently decided that it preferred to be any color but white. A Tide-to-Go pen is now a permanent fixture in my pocket, and it’s used almost as often as the actual pens.
It’s odd how much can be invested in a single article of clothing. The white coat is supposed to be a testament to clinical respect and cleanliness, coffee stains not withstanding. It acts as the uniform of our profession, an unofficial signal to other physicians and medical students that we are kith and kin. It certainly helps perpetuate our own beliefs that we are the white knights, riding into battle against disease and suffering.
Somehow, though, I feel like an impostor when I wear it. I’m a first-year medical student, besieged by biochemical cascades. What do I know of the responsibilities of truly wearing the white coat?
Every time I have put on my coat and gone into the hospital, I have been asked for directions, been given priority for getting on elevators or other small acts of respect. Frankly, I don’t feel like I’ve earned that respect. Not yet, anyways.
First-year medical students like myself have barely dipped our toes in the waters of medicine. Attendings ask me what tests I would like to order for a theoretical patient, and all I can do is stare blankly at them and mumble something I heard once on an episode of “E.R.” We simply don’t know enough to be able to answer most medical questions. If you want to know about adrenal cortex hormones or diabetes, though, I’m your gal.
I might not know a lot yet, and studying every day is exhausting. But when I trudge home from the library after learning an endless series of enzymes that all manage to sound the same, I see my white coat in my closet. It’s a symbol of perseverance, a reminder that I — and my fellow students — took an oath to which we must adhere for the rest of our lives.
The coat is a symbol of responsibility, binding us into the roles we swore to fulfill — healer, advocate and student. Perhaps we don’t know enough to treat patients (spoiler: we don’t), but the coat is a promise that we will, a promise that we will strive to deserve the respect with which it invests us.
Standing on stage at my white coat ceremony, I wasn’t aware of that promise. I was too giddy to think that far ahead. Along with the thoughts of “Can my parents see me?” and “Don’t trip!” that were running through my mind, there was still a sense that something larger was being bestowed, something more important than a boxy white cotton coat.
We were told when we first put on our coats that we were entering the medical profession. They just didn’t mention that, for better or for worse, we were being pushed in the deep end and told to swim. Don’t get me wrong, I am elated at the trust that is being placed in us. However, it places the onus on us to live up to that respect. And that is the true power of the white coat.