A little over a month ago, a new class of physician assistant (PA) students walked onto the George Washington University (GW) Foggy Bottom Campus, and on June 28, they took another major step in their professional aspirations by donning short white coats during convocation.
When the members of the Class of 2021 complete their education, they will join a growing workforce made up of more than 125,000 certified PAs, said Karen Wright, PhD, PA-C, director of the GW School of Medicine and Health Sciences PA Program and assistant dean for student life and academic support for health sciences. “The profession, which values team-based care, offers versatility, improved access to health care, and through its advocacy and leadership efforts, shapes health care policy.
“Over the next 24 months, these students will acquire the knowledge, skills, and emotional intelligence necessary to become competent clinicians and provide quality health care,” she said.
Presenting the keynote address at the event was Capt. Robin N. Hunter Buskey, DHSc, PA-C, a physician assistant in the Bureau of Prisons and captain in the United States Public Health Service. Buskey has the distinction of being the first PA to be elected to the Board of Directors of the Federation of State Medical Boards.
“I am honored to share this pivotal experience with you,” she said. “Although the white coat ceremony is the first step in professional medical training, it also serves as a symbol of the life-long commitment to patient-centered care and learning.”
When starting out as a PA, Buskey said, she was the first PA in many of her places of work, and often had to educate patients on what a PA does. She said nurses, doctors, and other health professionals watched her very carefully, and the pressures were great, but she never gave up.
“You’ve begun a PA educational experience that will change you,” she added. “I’m forever appreciative to my educators and to the hundreds of thousands of patients who helped me become a better health professional.”
Buskey spoke about her experience dealing with disease crises, such as the Zika and Ebola virus outbreaks. She said she drew on her education and experience to handle diseases that had no chapters in textbooks, adding that physician assistants must have good judgment and integrity, and learn to speak for their patients.
Student speakers from the PA Class of 2020 included Erica Chambers and Tara Trenhaile, who presented remarks by classmate Garnetta Gonzalez, who could not attend the ceremony.
Chambers mentioned her fears and doubts during the early weeks of her PA studies. She recalled how, during her own white coat ceremony, she was “reminded of the ultimate goal:” to become a certified physician assistant.
“It was that very shift that helped me to persevere,” she said. “So to you I say, keep the faith and trust the process. When you inevitably feel the pressure of a PA education, take a moment to acknowledge what you are feeling, but don’t stay in that place. Take a deep breath, lift your head, perhaps even dry your tears, and remind yourself that you have the constituent parts to become a great PA.”
Trenhaile, reading from Gonzalez’s remarks, said it is important for PAs to be unselfish with their time, their knowledge, and their emotional energy. “In our quest to become PAs,” she read, “we have opened ourselves up to be continuously humbled by the greater power and mystery of medicine.”
By wearing a white coat, she added, the students will carry on their shoulders a commitment to serve their communities with respect and to protect and care for the mind, body, and soul. “Just as you are up to the task of completing didactic year — you are, believe me — you are prepared for the charge of carrying the physician assistant profession to its next summit,” she said. “And we can do it together.”
Before the students were helped into their white coats by their classmates, Susan LeLachauer, DrPH, PA-C, professor of physician assistant studies at SMHS, reminded them of the white coat’s meaning.
“It’s a symbol of your candidacy of PAs. … Candidacy comes from the word candid or candor. It means white. It means clear. It means honesty,” she said. “It means that you approach your patients with candor and that you approach your patients with clarity and understanding.”
It’s more than a piece of cloth, she added, it symbolizes the humanism and integrity of the person who wears it.