I walked up to my seat. I saw a white coat draped there. Looking at it more closely, I saw my name inscribed intricately in Georgetown blue. It stood out perfectly against the stark white that symbolized my new profession. This was it. This was my coat.

As instructed, I sat down, careful to not wrinkle the beautifully folded treasure. Quietly waiting, I was eventually surrounded by my fellow classmates. So many faces, so many mirroring mine, filled with looks of excitement and nervousness. At some point through the shuffle, the ceremony started. People came and went from the stage in a perfectly executed flow of words. Words of wisdom, words of support, words of encouragement for the road ahead. All I could focus on was that coat on my chair, waiting patiently to be placed upon me.

Finally, it was my turn to walk up to the stage. This was the moment I had anticipated for years. My parents accompanied me, took the sacred garment from my arms, and placed it over my shoulders. I felt the fabric brush against my skin, the rigid fold lines still maintaining their integrity, and suddenly it was on. I was wearing the white coat. I was a medical student. I walked up to the podium and confidently stated my name, “Emily Legault.” No longer was I just a fresh college graduate; no longer was I just a girl from Los Angeles with a crazy dream; I was a future physician.

Nothing compares to this epic moment at the opening of the first year of medical school. Receiving the coat, reciting the Hippocratic oath, and officially being welcomed into a legendary profession, combine to create a moment that I will never forget. The feeling of elation and excitement consumes you so fully that you honestly cannot wait for the moment you walk into class and start your first year of medical school.


Oh, medical school is hard

Funny thing, with all of this immense enjoyment and growing excitement, all of a sudden you have to remember, “Oh, medical school is hard.” Yes. Very hard. What seems like just a few minutes after this epic ceremony, you are thrown into a whirlwind of biochemistry, physiology, and anatomy that doesn’t stop until all of a sudden, it is June and the first year is completed. That is where I am right about now. Technically, in about 63 hours, I will be a second-year medical student. Where did the time go?

Well, I’ll tell you where it went—it went into school. This first year of our medical education is a complete roller coaster—one day you will have an amazing moment of sheer affirmation and joy, thinking, “This is exactly what I am meant to do.” The next day you find out you failed an exam, or completely ruined your patient interview. All of a sudden you are a bundle of doubt, thinking about your future working at the local Dunkin Donuts.

Throughout all these ups and downs, I forced myself to remember to look at that white coat I got so many months ago. I like to hang my white coat somewhere I can see it, especially after a 12-hour day of studying. Just being able to glimpse up at it, remember that symbol and remember that special moment, I get the motivation to put my head back down and continue on.

Then there are the days that make the word “difficult” seem like a huge understatement. The day I found out I had failed my neuroscience midterm was one of those. At that moment, I felt like this journey had ended for me. I pictured myself getting an email or call from the Dean with that somber tone of sympathy. I would tell them, thanks for the offer of retaking the class, but that I was done. I quit.


What brought me here in the first place?

At moments like this, I have to look at the coat and remember what brought me here in the first place. I need to remember why I am doing this. Yes, this moment took a little bit more than just a quick glance to overcome. Long conversations with my parents. Hugs from my friends. Maybe even a few drinks and more than a few tears. I needed to remember the good moments.

I thought back to that first moment in anatomy lab when we opened up the chest cavity to dissect the heart and lungs of our cadaver. We removed his heart, and I grasped it strongly, but gently in my hands. I stared at the atria and ventricles, the intricate looping of the blood vessels, the size of the valves.

How many people have this opportunity to understand the very essence of what makes us human? Just realizing that this beautifully engineered tissue is what allows every day to breathe, live, and to even exist. This is the heart that kept this man alive for his 90 years of life. This heart took him home in his mother’s arms, took him to his prom, to his wedding, to the birth of his children. No, I don’t know what this person’s life is like, but I felt permanently connected to him and completely filled with awe and gratitude.

I thought back to one of the first patients I saw in our communication course this year. He was a teenager who had just been diagnosed with diabetes, a life altering experience for him. Yes, there was a limited conversation with the traditional scripted questions we were to ask. When he mentioned his involvement in robotics, I saw an opportunity, remembering my engineering background. Afterwards, I asked him more about his plans for his project, talking about computers and coding, things I never thought I would use in medical school. He finally had a glimpse of excitement in his eyes. Just being able to be the one to bring that simple feeling of connection to a patient interaction was enough. I remembered this is why I am here.

These moments motivate me to continue on this crazy path. These moments helped me to refocus, and to not give up, just because of one exam. To put my entire life on pause for three weeks to ensure I can ace this final, pass this course, and complete my first year of medical school.

Today, as I look over to my white coat, it no longer looks quite perfect. The whiteness has faded, the wrinkles are no longer there on purpose, there are pen marks and sweat stains. It is still perfect to me. Similarly, I am not the perfect, optimistic new medical student I was back in August. I’ve been through some tough moments, my idealism may have faded slightly, and I may be emotionally strained and tired, but I am still here.

I know that the journey will continue to be difficult, but that at the end, I know it will all have been worth it. When I retire, my dear friend, the medical student white coat and put on my new, long white coat of the M.D., all the hardships, emotions, and struggles will fade away. I’ll no longer just be a dreamer. I will be living my dream.

TDWI Writer’s Group member, Margaret Cary, developed and teaches the Narrative Medicine/Personal Essay course at Georgetown University School of Medicine. Her students’ essays reflect their thoughts on being in medical school and becoming physicians.


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