my white coat

Hi geezers,
I’m writing this from my room at Vanderbilt Hall, Harvard’s medical school dorm. The last few weeks have been insane; and now, I’m overwhelmed with relief and happiness that I’m finally here.
The insanity of the last few weeks came from taking a self-paced calculus course. My pace was too slow (though much faster than typical) and after a family emergency delayed me a few days, I started getting dangerously close to the start of school without having finished calculus. It was starting to get a little dicey–the main obstacle was a “mastery test” which didn’t count for the grade, but which had to be taken again and again until passed with greater than 90% correct. I was worried I wasn’t going to make it–it required quick hand calculation, which I’m not great at. Anyway, after some panicking that my procrastination was going to keep me out of medical school, and after some generous granting of partial credit from the course director, I passed calculus. (Lesson: “self-paced” means trouble.) Then I had to pack all my stuff up which was another crazy saga. And drive it all up to Boston, which was another adventure. My mom actually came out to help me–I felt just like one of the kids, but also, really grateful for her help and for my supportive family in general.
My room faces a lab building under construction, which is the bad news; and my room is also quite small, and the walls are marked with the nail holes and chipped paint of the previous occupants. The bathroom is down the hall and there’s not much storage space for my pots, pans and other kitchen stuff. The kitchen is right across the hall from my room. My mom took a look at my room and said, "It’s pretty monastic."
Yeah. (Except for the Ethernet jack, I guess.)
Well, so, I’m here because I decided to dive right in, to find out what was good about my younger colleagues, to really do this all the way. So, hopefully that will turn out well. So far, so good; I’m sure I won’t like everyone, but lots of the people I’ve met so far I’ve liked.
Because of the doubt that my calculus situation created, I’m not sure I had really accepted and realized that I was really doing this. Yesterday was the first day of orientation, and as the dean greeted us in the lobby of the library, I really finally realized it: I’m here. The library is beautiful: none of the lovely views of the UCSF library, true, but many more journal subscriptions, books, and archives; and lots of space for studying. I talked to a couple of nice and interesting students as we toured around. We got a lengthy presentation about the computer resources of the medical school; and then an afternoon presentation and some discussion about two Institutes of Medicine reports, the summaries of which had been sent to us over the summer. They were on medical errors and racial disparities in medicine, both issues which, our speakers emphasized, will require big changes in the structure of medicine to correct.
Today was a bigger day; we had our white coat ceremony. We are divided up into “societies”, each named after some past Harvard medical luminary (mine is the Castle Society), plus a society for a more hard-science curriculum that is distinct from the New Pathway curriculum that the rest of us are going through. Dividing the New Pathway students into societies makes the problem-based learning tutorials a little more manageable. With a class of 202 (including 30-some dental students who share our classes for the first two years), having these societies makes it more likely that there will be at least some continuity as you rotate through groups of 8; and helps ensure that there are some staff looking out for you as you go through the process.
I assumed these societies were pretty arbitrary and essentially the same; but our White Coat Ceremony was particularly nice compared to what it sounded like the other societies did. While most of the groups apparently simply got up and introduced themselves briefly, our society master (the faculty member who watches over our progress as we go through the process) had us all get up in front of the group and say something about our backgrounds and what this white coat meant to us. This inspired really sweet and heartfelt statements from most of us. Several students briefly teared up explaining what the coat meant to them, and I found myself wiping away tears through much of the occasion. Looking out on my fellow students when it was my turn, most of them by then in their white coats, I told a little bit of my story, and said, “I’m really honored to be here among you”, and I really felt that very deeply. I was shaking from the nervousness and emotion when my society master helped me into my white coat.
After these small ceremonies, we all gathered in an ampitheater of the Brigham and Women’s hospital and heard from several patients and doctors who told their stories; the theme of which was that we should listen carefully to our patients. Including a great presentation from a formerly homeless woman and her doctor, both of whom really impressed me.
I saw myself in the mirror afterwards, wearing my tie and my white coat. I had to finally accept that this had really happened; I had really done this; and I am really going to medical school in a place that is full of possibility for me and what I want to do in medicine.
I’ll write more later, I think… but for now, I just wanted to let you all know that I’ve started… and that as a result I’ll probably be posting less to this board, which I know I’ve said before but this time I think it’s probably true… but still around, and reachable via email at
–sf/boston joe

congratulations Joe. I look forward to hearing more stories from you - esp. about adapting to dorm life after independence as well as everything else.

Lovely story…
The years of our education are some of the best of our lives.

Thanks for sharing that very special moment with us!
Keep us posted on your experiences when you have time...they are very insightful and inspiring.
Mucha Suerte!

Beautiful post Joe. You are where you belong; Harvard is so damn lucky to have you! I wish you the very best. Keep us updated when you can. Best Regards, Vita