The White Coat Ceremony occurred on the evening of our first day of orientation. My classmates and I took up the first five rows of the enormous Loma Linda University Church where we fidgeted nervously, forecasting ourselves tripping on our way up to the stage. I can only describe the ceremony itself as strangely sacred. The service was very religious in nature, including music, prayer, benediction, dedication, the donning of the coats, and a liturgical recitation of the Physicians’ Oath.
Eight white-clad physician/professors formed a welcoming line on the stage. One by one, our names were called until eight students stood before eight physicians. Then, as if they could communicate telepathically, our professors simultaneously slipped the coats onto the awaiting shoulders of my classmates.
I was one of the last to be coated so I was able to observe an awe-inspiring transformation occurring in the front of the church. The rows of multicolored jackets and dresses slowly faded, replaced with an emerging sea of white. When my name was finally called, I walked up and took a place in front of Dr. Lui. The warmth and kindness in his gaze was palpable, calming my tense nerves. As soon as I was coated, he shook my hand and whispered a word of congratulations in my ear. Cameras flashed, there was applause, and then it was over.
What is it about the coat that gives this ceremony such a spiritual atmosphere? It’s not like I’m any less ignorant about being a doctor now that I’m wearing a coat with my name on it. We were told that the white coat symbolizes our sacred call as physicians to heal mankind. I recently learned that long ago, physicians actually wore black robes. What images do black robes bring to mind? Death. Puritan ministers. Funerals. Mordor. I don’t think I would enjoy being examined by a dark-robed figure that looked like Voldemort or the grim reaper, but that’s just me.On the other hand, a white coat brings a different set of symbols to mind. Cleanliness. Purity. Angels. Weddings. Babies. Clouds. Little bunnies. Gandalf. All these things are associated with life and renewal.
Consequently, I think that the white coat conveys a psychological expectation of healing to the patient, even before any official care is given. It is one of the many non-verbal, intangible signals a physician gives that creates a sacred bond of trust with the patient. It says: “I can help you; you will get through this!” It’s funny, really, because medicine presents itself as grounded in the fact-based scientific method. And yet, the Physicians’ Oath that we collectively recited at the end of the ceremony reveals an entirely different, spiritual component of medicine that eludes quantification. Led out by our Dean, Dr. Hadley, we spoke the following words as one voice:
Before God these things I do promise: In the acceptance of my sacred calling, I will dedicate my life to the furtherance of Jesus Christ’s healing and teaching ministry. I will give to my teachers the respect and gratitude which is their due. I will impart to those who follow me the knowledge and experience I have gained. The wholeness of my patients will be my first consideration. Acting as a good steward of the resources of society and of the talents granted me, I will endeavor to reflect God’s mercy and compassion by caring for the lonely, the poor, the suffering, and those who are dying. I will maintain the utmost respect for human life. I will not use my medical knowledge contrary to the laws of humanity. I will respect the rights and decision of my patients. I will hold in confidence all secrets committed to my keeping in the practice of my calling. I will lead my life and practice my art with purity and honor; abstaining from immorality myself, I will not lead others into moral wrongdoing. May God’s kingdom, His healing power and glory be experienced by those whom I serve and may they be made known in my life, in proportion as I am faithful to this oath.