A tradition held Friday at the University of Vermont's Larner College of Medicine looked very different than the ceremony ever has before, because of changes forced by the pandemic.
"It is different times, but we're learning how to adapt and overcome," said medical student Justin Esteban. "That's what medicine is all about."
Esteban was one of 124 future physicians taking part in the school's white coat ceremony.
Traditionally, the coats have been placed on first-year medical students as a rite of passage—serving as both a welcome to the profession and as a reminder to their wearers of the responsibilities and high standards that come with practicing medicine.
This year, to lower the risk from COVID-19, there was no in-person audience at the Burlington event. Family and friends instead watched via livestream and wrote digital notes of support. Students spread themselves out and put their coats on themselves, staying in small groups to hear from speakers and take their oath.
"Our professional responsibility is to keep our community safe and healthy in the midst of a pandemic," Dr. Christa Zehle, the senior associate dean for medical education at the UVM Larner College of Medicine, reminded the students during her remarks.
The changes to the ceremony were just the latest way the university has had to adjust to the pandemic. Education at the Larner College of Medicine is following a hybrid model this semester.
"I'm just really happy that we get to do this at all," medical student Mohamad Hamze said of the adjuster ceremony. "I think that's a huge thing I know all of us were uncertain about—if this was even going to happen this year."
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Each of the students had a different motivation and background that pointed them toward careers in medicine.
"I was a certified public accountant working in Boston," said Betsy Assoumou, a med student who took part in Friday's ceremony.
Assoumou told NECN she was motivated in large part by the loss of her mother to metastatic breast cancer.
"I'm really interested in breast cancer, oncology, the health disparity in breast cancer with African-American women," Assoumou said, noting that she expects to discover new interests and topics that pique her curiosity all throughout her medical school education.
Hamze said he worked as a medical scribe in an emergency room in the earliest days of the coronavirus crisis, recalling how he was profoundly moved by the dedication and professionalism of health care heroes.
"Seeing physicians and nurses who were putting their lives on the line to help curb this pandemic—I had a lot of respect for every health care worker, every part of the team, that came in every day to do what they could in those early stages," Hamze said.
UVM's first-year medical students are now one symbolic step closer to joining that committed group of professionals, now that they have their new white coats.
"It means a lot to me," Assoumou said.