by Sean Madigan

Beginning this month, first-year Medical School students will add another dimension to their rigorous world of highlighters and heavy textbooks. They will start seeing patients.
More than 160 students were presented with white coats, the traditional uniform for physicians, at the Medical School’s second annual White Coat Ceremony on Saturday at Northrop Auditorium.
“This is the opening sonata of your professional symphony,” Dr. Alfred Michael, the dean of the Medical School, told students at the event.
First held at Columbia University in 1993, the ceremony celebrates the symbolic role the white coat plays in the doctor-patient relationship.
The ceremony marks the transition from the academic study of basic science to the humanistic and altruistic aspects of the profession.
Originally, the white coat was associated with aseptic surgery in the late 1800s and was used to protect both the patient and the doctor from cross-contamination. But now the coat acts as a symbol of the ideal values doctors should hold, said Dr. Greg Vercellotti, the Medical School’s senior associate dean for education.
“What the white coat is not, is a uniform that permits elitism, arrogancy or exclusivity,” Vercellotti said.
Before the students donned the coats, more than 500 medical students, faculty members and their families listened to a series of community professionals discuss what it means to be a doctor in today’s society.
Peppered with humorous anecdotes and interludes of Mozart and Handel from the Health Sciences Orchestra, physicians and educators explained that compassion and understanding for their patients is just as important as knowing how the circulatory system functions.
“A ceremony is a ceremony,” said first-year student Ben Christenson. “Actually seeing patients is the big deal.”
When Dr. Stuart Lane Arey began his career more than 70 years ago, medical knowledge was not quite where it is today.
“We didn’t even know the number of chromosomes in the human cell,” reflected Arey, clinical professor emeritus of pediatrics.
“How did we get along? We kept our patients comfortable,” Arey explained. “If you’re going into it (the medical profession) to become millionaires, you’ve made a mistake. If you’ve come to take care of people, you’ll have a wonderful life.”
Other speakers gave students insights on the diversity of care necessary for patients in the inner city or rural Minnesota.
Channel 9 News anchorwoman, Robyne Robinson asked the aspiring physicians to listen to patients. Robinson has battled lupus for more than 20 years and said she has been mis-diagnosed with everything from gangrene to syphilis. She explained to the students how a patient feels and asked them to consider the patient’s fears and frustrations.
“Imagine the doctor telling you when you’re 18 years old that you have syphilis — in front of your mother,” Robinson said.
Robinson asked that doctors remain professional and consider their environment.
“How about when you are getting a proctology exam and somebody asks you out on a date?” she said.
Speakers used humor to illustrate that medicine should not be a cold or clinical profession.
Dr. Virginia Lupo poked fun at medical students’ idiosyncratic behavior, saying they cram everything from stethoscopes to medical journals in their coat pockets then waddle from room to room, refusing to walk more than 10 feet without a bottle of purified water.
“I would argue that you could make it in contemporary Minneapolis without carrying hydration on your immediate person,” said Lupo, who also taught students how to care for their coats. She told them to use extra strength Shout.
“There is a time and place for chili dogs in this country and it is not on your coat sleeves,” she quipped.
Although medical students are still students while wearing their white coats, in the eyes of a patient, very little separates a student from a physician, Lupo said.
“The practice of medicine depends on a bond of trust between patients and physicians,” said Dr. John Eyler.