The White Coat Ceremony marks the start of intensive clinical learning experiences for the 38 members of the program's Class of 2019.
Members of the Elon University Physician Assistant Studies Program's Class of 2019 on Friday heard a message of inspiration — how to inspire patients, and in turn be inspired by them — as they received their white coats and officially moved from the academic study of medicine to practicing it in clinical settings.
The program's White Coat Ceremony held Dec. 8 is considered a rite of passage for those studying to become physician assistants, as well as a commitment to being a skilled and caring provider in the future.
These students arrived at Elon in January to begin the 27-month program, with the first phase centered on academic medicine and establishing a foundation of medical knowledge. Following the White Coat Ceremony, the focus shifts to clinical medicine and practical experience, with students spending the bulk of their time working with patients and immersed in the caregiving environment.
In his keynote address, Michael McLamb offered insights to these 38 physician assistants-in-training from his own time spent as a student and as a new physician assistant. A physician assistant with Duke Triangle Heart Associates in Durham, N.C., McLamb has taught at Elon as a guest lecturer and these students have gotten to know him and have learned from him this year.
Focusing on the white coat that these students will wear as they begin to care for patients, McLamb said it is the first, but certainly won't be the last as they progress through their careers are caregivers.
"To patients, a white coat is a health care symbol of knowledge, proficiency and professionalism," McLamb said. "To these first and to all subsequent patients over your career, your white coat brings no small measure of comfort to this vital, interpersonal social contract."
McLamb recounted his time as a new physician assistant, and the strict rules he was taught to follow, which included eschewing sleep and food, and only rarely reaching out to other medical providers for help. Looking to avoid such "displays of weakness" was "vexing, exhausting and largely futile," McLamb said, and he learned to be flexible, collaborative and to take care of himself as he sought to take care of patients.
"The experience will be hard," McLamb said. "It will be imperfect, but looking back, you will connect those dots and it will all make sense."
Recently, McLamb said, he took the time to thoroughly explain to one patient the patient's ongoing heart issues and potential solutions. Drawing on his skills as a teacher, he explained how the heart's electrical system worked, drawing diagrams on a board in the patient's room. Preparing to leave the room, the patient thanked him for taking the time and making the patient "feel important," saying that McLamb inspired him. But caring for patients can be just as inspiring, he said.
"He and other patients are why we are here," McLamb said. "They put their trust in us frequently under the most stressful, trying times of their lives.
"As you begin and move along in your careers, keep asking, 'how can I help this patient feel better today?'" McLamb said. "They will get better. The will be grateful. And they will inspire you just as you have inspired me."
During her welcome toward the start of the ceremony, Rebecca Neiduski, dean of the School of Health Sciences, thanked the friends and family members gathered in the Numen Lumen Pavilion for offering "a solid foundation, a listening ear and unconditional love" to the students have they have progressed. To the students, she said that "most often you'll be amazed by how much you know, how much you've learned and how much you've grown during the past year" as they move into clinical work.
Laura Gardner, vice president of the P.A. Class of 2019, and Grace Blackley, class president, took the time to offer their thanks to faculty, staff and their fellow students for all that they have meant during the first year of the program. Looking ahead, Blackley encouraged her peers to continue to strive, despite challenges and setbacks, as they work toward completing their training. (Blackley's complete remarks are available below)
Blackley noted that she has been taking an internal inventory of herself, and looking at things she could have done better. That led her to consider what it means to do "better," and drawing insights from author and surgeon Dr. Atul Gawande, she said they will all be confronted "by the reality of not what we do know, but what we don't, and just how much more we have to learn."
Those moments shouldn't be a time for feel discouraged, though, she said. "We should allow that moment, and others like it, to show us how to be better." Citing the words of author James Joyce who called mistakes "portals of discovery," Blackley said those times can make them better physician assistants.
"These discoveries might not always be easy, but they will be valuable and unforgettable additions to our knowledge, discernment and experience for the work we have chosen to do," Blackley said. "We're on our way, and we're good, but better is always possible, if you're willing to try."
The Class of 2019 is the fifth class for Elon's Master of Science in Physician Assistant Studies program, which last year achieved a major milestone with recognition and continued accreditation by The Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant, the national accrediting body.
The Class of 2019