To the Future of Medicine

Below are the words I wrote to welcome our new medical students at the White Coat Ceremony. Not everyone gets a ceremony or a white coat when they come here, so let’s remember to make them all welcome—new and returning undergraduates, graduates, post-docs, MDs, MSTPs, residents, and trainees. I hope that there is something here that resonates with you no matter what you’re wearing: lab coat, scrubs, or your own clothes.

Welcome all and best wishes for a fantastic year!

“On behalf of the University of Minnesota Medical School, thank you for joining us here today.

To our new students, welcome! Today is a day like no other. Today you begin one of the most challenging, rewarding, profound, and awesome experiences of your life. 

Ceremonies mark our transitions from one phase of life to another. Today you join the ranks of people who have, over millennia and around the world, dedicated their lives to the care of their fellow humans. To formalize your entry into this group, you are going to receive symbols of your profession—the white coat and stethoscope. 

These two items mark you for the future. The coat placed upon your shoulders brings with it the responsibility of caring for others. It brings the obligations of compassion and empathy. It brings authority. It provides reassurance to patients, gives them confidence in your competence, and sometimes, conversely, raises their blood pressure. The stethoscope carries duties as well. The duty to listen, to be part of a team, to have seriousness of purpose, and—with the right equipment—to measure that rising blood pressure.

When you put these symbols on, it changes how the public sees you. It changes how you see yourself. Many of you, when you embark on your own practice (particularly pediatricians) will abandon the white coat as being too formal or inapproachable, but for now, it is your armor, your purpose, your proof of identity. Regardless of the physical fit, it is something for you to grow into.

And get a good picture of yourself today because your coat is not going to stay this white. As you work, it will acquire stains: blood, sweat, tears, and possibly other things. Will you throw it away because it is no longer perfect? No. Because you know that coat can be washed and bleached and ironed back to usability. The same goes for you. You will acquire mistakes and failures. Look at them hard, learn from them, and let them go. None of us is perfect. All of us are worth a good washing and ironing back into shape.

Becoming a doctor is not easy, but I’m sure you didn’t chose this profession because you thought it was. You will be defined not by how effortless your progress is, but by how you work through the difficulties. Be kind to yourself and extend that kindness to others. I want you to always remember that you are not doing this alone. Beyond whatever support you will receive outside the University, the faculty of the Medical School are charged with your education and with your wellbeing. We are here to support you.

Congratulations on receiving your white coat today and best wishes for your years of study and your years of practice beyond!”