I live in Chicago, which means I own many coats. I have a coat for when summer fades to fall, when the winter is slowly overtaken by spring, and, of course, for the dead of winter. All of these coats have a responsibility to me. I acquired them with the unspoken agreement that they would keep me warm when the weather was fighting to chill me. They have a duty to fulfill.
This white coat I received last week is different. When I put it on, I am the one with the duty. It’s a duty to protect patients, uphold professionalism, and sustain the highest standards possible. The coat represents my entry into the medical field and puts me among a group of professionals that are trusted, respected, and given the heavy task of caring for human life.
The beginning of medical school has brought with it a variety of emotions: the nervousness of wondering just how difficult classes will be, the uncertainty of being in a place with new peers and professors, but also the excitement of formally beginning my career in medicine. Only a few days in, I have quickly realized that medical school has a distinctly different tone from undergrad. Unlike undergrad, cramming for tests and then purging the information from the night before will not suffice. Here, the information I am learning is no longer just for me and my own intellectual gains, but for the well-being of others. There is a responsibility to genuinely learn and better myself for when patients will need my help. This transition has required a mental reconfiguration and an assessment of what my priorities are. I have removed some of the clutter from my life, both physical objects I have acquired over the years and mental occupations over small grievances. I want to allocate as much mental capacity as possible to truly digesting and absorbing the pages upon pages of material that have been thrown my way. For me, the white coat represents a new level of dedication to learning, not just during medical school, but for the rest of my career in medicine.
Even so, as future physicians, we need to understand that it is impossible to know it all. Throughout orientation, the most important lesson I learned, repeated time and time again, was “Ask for help.” While doctors are supposed to retain vast amounts of knowledge, it is vitally important to know and admit when we don’t know something. In college, we could get away with not doing a reading for class, still coming up with something decently intelligible to say. There was nothing at stake besides a little dignity if you revealed that you had not prepared. In medical school, much more is at stake. While wearing the white coat, we are expected to be credible, trustworthy, and reliable sources of information and guidance. Admitting uncertainty about a test or diagnosis is not a sign of weakness. Being able to ask for help from other experts demonstrates a certain level of confidence and professionalism. Moreover, someone’s life can and will depend on us being willing to say, “I don’t know.” While it is hard to admit personal shortcomings, I will work to do so in these next four years and strive to fill the gaps in knowledge that I discover along the way.
My white coat is still a little stiff, but I think it will become more comfortable in time. Seeing myself in it, I realize that I have started an important new stage of my life. I want to take it seriously, while still remembering to not take myself too seriously. Though it all sounds a little daunting and intense, I am ecstatic to start. I am finally going to study what I have been waiting years to learn. I am going to be challenged with ethical dilemmas and question some things I believed to be true. I will impact patients in a meaningful way, and they will do the same for me.
Even so, I keep reminding myself that the transformation to a physician will not happen overnight. This coat doesn’t make me a doctor. It signifies that I have begun to develop into one.
About Arianna Yanes
Arianna Yanes is a first year medical student at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. She is the daughter of two physicians who immigrated to America from Iran and Syria to pursue their passions for medicine. Although they encouraged her to consider other career options, Arianna ultimately developed the same passions that brought her parents to the U.S.
As an intern with CNN’s Medical Unit, Arianna became passionate about communicating medical news and making health information accessible and digestible. She plans to continue writing and blogging through medical school and hopes to eventually incorporate this into her future career.