A Medical Student’s Very Special White Coat Ceremony

Sarah Ritchie Milestones Leave a Comment

Many professions are associated with particular attire or uniforms, if you will. The military, police officers, airline pilots, health professionals, and clergy—all of these worthy vocations have special uniforms, often including ornaments of honor.  I’ve always been fascinated with not only the garments worn by various occupations, but the rituals surrounding their presentation.  My friend Laura, a nurse and educator, describes the humbling, but inspiring, experience of receiving her nursing pin.  As I became a candidate for ordination at One Spirit Interfaith Seminary, I was gifted with a stole adorned by symbols of the major faith traditions.   Recalling that moment still gives me goose bumps.

I have always been curious about the ceremony that medical students go through when they receive their white coat, the ubiquitous symbol of this most noble occupation. The first coat, given to med students or interns, is noticeably shorter than the longer coats worn by those who’ve completed training.

I recently read about a most profound coat presentation to a young man from Oklahoma, Tyler Zander who is beginning the long road of medical school. All those that know me are aware of my affection for the Sooner state, and a young many like Tyler demonstrates the character I admire in so many “Okies.”  Still a high school boy, he was working on a farm, with another young friend Bryce Gannon.  Although still only 17 or 18, the two friends were responsible for the grain auger, the enormous corkscrew device internal to a grain elevator.  Just as an auger can churn through tons of grain and seed, it can rip through the human body.  Tyler’s young friend accidently found his leg caught in the machinery.  Without regard to his personal safety, Tyler worked mightily to free the other youngster from death or dismemberment.  And he did so at great personal cost.  At the end of the nightmare, both boys had lost a leg.  Tyler’s case was even more serious than Gannon’s.

Some 30 surgeries, 97 units of blood and 70+ days in the hospital he was released from OU’s Medical Center. Ultimately, he enrolled in and graduated from Oklahoma State University, where he was a pre-med major.    With some good-natured misgivings, Tyler decided to attend medical school at intrastate rival the University of Oklahoma, which has the state’s only public medical school rationalizing, “They did save my life, after all.”

Now at his white coat ceremony, Tyler was preparing to cross the threshold from a young person who dreamed of becoming a doctor to the very long road ahead in medical school, internship, residency, fellowship, and beyond. And it was his orthopedic surgeon Dr. William Ertl who cared for him during the amputation of his leg and the great recovery that followed who cloaked him with his first doctor’s coat.  Tyler credits Dr. Ertl with helping him to walk again.

Tyler says he wouldn’t change anything about his ordeal—it has made him who he is today.  It’s hard to imagine a white coat ceremony that could have been any sweeter.

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