A few months ago, I walked into an auditorium filled with the applause of parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, siblings and friends who had traveled far and wide to be there that day. Cameras flashed, and I strained to catch a glimpse of my own family, who I soon saw excitedly waving from the back of the room. I breathed in and out, in and out, in and out, trying to slow my heart rate. Countless hours of preparation had led to this day: the day when I would get the honor of donning the white coat that characterized the profession I was about to enter.
And yet when I sat down, my nerves dissipated and were replaced by something else entirely. I looked at the program of events, at all the names of the classmates I was only beginning to know, and I wished that I could forward through it. The processional music, the speeches, the act of having someone put a coat on me that I had technically already been given earlier that day — it all seemed unnecessary in that moment. A ceremony is meant to celebrate something earned, something significant. But imposter syndrome-infused thoughts made me feel like I was not ready, not prepared to be there, and that I needed to work harder to deserve it.
I had been dreaming of this day for days, for weeks, for years. What had happened? When did my excitement to be wearing a white coat transform into something more akin to fear?
Our white coat ceremony was preceded by a month of classes in which we were being introduced to the building blocks of medicine: Biochemistry, Cell Biology, Medical Genetics, Ethics and Professionalism, Epidemiology and Biostatistics, Problem-Based Learning and Medical Interviewing and the Doctor-Patient Relationship. I could conceptualize most of the classes — I was prepared for a review of glycolysis, learning about complex pedigrees and reading about DNA synthesis. What I was not prepared for was the shift in the way that people would look at me and talk to me when they learned that I was a medical student, and this was most prominent in the patient-interviewing course. With this new title, people felt comfortable telling me about the most intimate aspects of their lives — their relationships, their goals, their losses and their fears. To be frank, I’m not quite sure why. A few weeks of biochemistry did not make me uniquely qualified to give any sort of helpful insight into the loss of a parent, into the crippling nature of depression or into how painful it can be to lose independence as we age. I was acutely aware of my youth, of my lack of scientific background and of my inexperience in these interactions with patients. But the title — “Medical Student” — seemed to erase these issues for more people than I had initially thought, and while the honor was immense, it was also overwhelming.
The white coat represents the trust and expectations of these patients and society at large transformed into something tangible, something visible. In the modern Hippocratic Oath, we recite, “Most especially must I tread with care in matters of life and death. If it is given me to save a life, all thanks. But it may also be within my power to take a life; this awesome responsibility must be faced with great humbleness and awareness of my own frailty. Above all, I must not play at God.” Sitting in that auditorium, I did not feel ready. In my head were random diseases and disorders jumbled with thoughts about the laundry I had to do and regret that I had only eaten a banana for breakfast — much less any profound epiphanies about life and death.
But when I finally walked across the stage and the white coat was put on me, I immediately felt a sense of the history of those who had preceded me, and the associated responsibilities both literally and figuratively being placed on my shoulders. I simultaneously looked out and saw a sea of white coats on my peers — the future of medicine personified — and felt the privilege of being in a community of people experiencing the same things I was, striving to be the best they could be. I still did not feel ready, but I felt resolve. I might lack the skills to help patients, but I have the ability to learn. I might not be able to diagnose, but I can give a comforting smile and offer to hold someone’s hand. I can spend hours in the library, knowing that I’m not just working to pass an exam, but to impact someone’s life in a positive way. And I am finally beginning to understand that while the white coat I have been given may not fit me yet, I can (and will) grow to fit it one day.