To be clear, for black medical students, supporting Black Lives Matter and other health equality and social justice initiatives is not a matter of a professional oath. It is a matter of life or death, close or distant — that of a loved one or of a stranger of the same hue and shared struggles.
Though the white coat’s role in medicine today is complex — to some, a respected symbol of medicine’s history; to others, a antiquated relic of a paternalistic past — few medical students or frontline residents would deny this emblematic item one major utility: a source of pockets.
I can only hope that you, my future physician colleagues, and I can understand the greater meaning of the white coat and fulfill its truest potential. That white coat is now our life, and we must not take it for granted.
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.
Earlier this month, I watched my younger sister begin her medical school journey as she walked on stage in front of family members and peers to be officially “white-coated.” I had never been to another white coat ceremony since my own years ago. It was fascinating to observe it from my now-more-seasoned fourth-year medical student eyes — especially at another institution.
The day before I was asked to give this speech, sometime mid-May, I was speaking with a first year student. At the time, I was two weeks shy of completing my third year of medical school — the year of school that you spend the most time in the hospital.
I walk down Summit Avenue in St. Paul, Minnesota this evening, and it is packed with people. People grieving, people chatting, people holding one another, people holding banners and people giving speeches. July 7, 2016: a black man named Philandro Castile had been killed barely twenty-four hours ago by a police officer.
Each time we came in for our Islamic Medical Association of North America (IMANA) Medical Clinic, we never knew what to expect. IMANA clinic is a community-based project led by the Albany Medical College Family Medicine Office that connects medical students to the local Muslim population through screening and education clinics at Masjid As-Salaam. This masjid is the central prayer space and community support for many of Albany’s Muslims. The unique quality of this service-learning program is its emphasis on cultural competency and understanding the role of spirituality in medical care.
On the day of my white coat ceremony, I felt like a pretender. I squirmed in the rigid, wooden seat, staring at the gilded columns and towering proscenium of the hall, wondering when I’d be found out. I imagined them calling me to the stage, slipping on the coat, then seeing me in it and saying, “Well, that doesn’t look quite right.”
Since the start of my third year as a medical student, I have been quite interested in observing how people interact with me now that I am wearing a white coat. To be more specific, I find it amazing that people do not realize that my white coat is so much shorter than everyone else’s. To me, the length of my coat should act as a warning to those around me; I do not know where things are, and I do not know what’s going on most of the time.
I am an engineering graduate. My rigorous education has taught me that when presented with a problem, I should systematically narrow down solutions to figure out the best possible one. During my second week of medical school I had my first standardized patient encounter. I felt very pleased with myself when I walked out the door after having asked the patient specific questions about her foot pain and been rewarded with the details of her worries.
This afternoon, medical students across the country, from Providence to San Francisco, will lay down on sidewalks and atrium floors in their white coats to express solidarity with ongoing victims of racial violence. As aspiring health care professionals, we don our white coats for these “die-ins” to express our commitment to the idea that racial injustice can and should be framed as a public health issue demanding our attention and efforts.