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T.H. Chan School of Medicine celebrates White Coat Ceremonies for Classes of 2024, 2025

By Susan E.W. Spencer and Colleen Locke

UMass Chan Medical School Communications

September 20, 2021
  • Medical students in the Class of 2025 from Quinsigamond House, one of six learning communities of the T.H. Chan School of Medicine.
  • Students in Brightwood House are in the PURCH track.
  • Sisters Natasha Bitar and Raquel Bitar are both first-year medical students.
  • The Class of 2025 was the first to receive white coats with the T.H. Chan School of Medicine name.
  • First-year medical student Kareem Nunnally-Rivera is a Springfield native in the PURCH track.
  • First-year medical student Zahin Ahmed was the first to receive one a white coats bearing the new school name.
  • First-year medical student Allison Salonga Maebius of Burncoat House receives her white coat.
  • First-year medical student Marcus S. McKenzie is in Kelley House.
  • First-year medical student Derrick Tonto joins his classmates in reciting the oath.
  • he Class of 2024 prepares for its White Coat Ceremony, delayed a year because of the pandemic.
  • Second-year medical student Omar Taweh takes a selfie.
  • Anne C. Larkin, MD, speaks to the Class of 2024. Dr. Larkin performed an appendectomy between ceremonies.
  • Second-year medical student Jordan Dudley receives her white coat.
  • Second-year medical student Akshay Alaghatta, here with David Hatem, MD, receives his white coat.
  • The White Coat Ceremony for the T.H. Chan School of Medicine Class of 2024 was held in the Hanover Theatre.
  • Second-year medical student Alex Richard joins the Class of 2024 in reciting the class oath.
  • Second-year medical student Alexandra Nguyen shares a laugh after the White Coat Ceremony for the Class of 2024.

The double feature of White Coat Ceremonies for the T.H. Chan School of Medicine Classes of 2024 and 2025, held at the Hanover Theatre for the Performing Arts in Worcester on Friday, Sept. 17, had almost everything a touring Broadway show might have: pageantry, emotion and even drama. The audience learned at the 4 p.m. ceremony for the Class of 2024 that a speaker had stepped out to perform surgery in the interval following the 11 a.m. ceremony for the Class of 2025.

Traditionally, first-year medical students at UMass Chan celebrate the White Coat Ceremony, but second-year students were included this time because they had to forgo their ceremony last year in the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It is important for us to remember that your class spent an entire academic year with little celebration,” said Anne C. Larkin, MD, associate professor of surgery, vice provost and senior associate dean for educational affairs, to the second-year students. Dr. Larkin also demonstrated versatility as a surgeon and medical school leader, as she deftly managed surgery between the ceremonies.

“You entered medical school in a time of turmoil and uncertainty with the pandemic,” she said. “You know, I will be giving my presidential address to the New England Surgical Society next week. And that address is inspired by all of you: Grit, resilience, perseverance, optimism, but with a singular focus on what we can all do to improve upon our society as it is today.”

Chancellor Michael F. Collins said the 163 students in the Chan School of Medicine Class of ‘25 would be the first to don white coats with the school’s week-old name.

“Mr. T. H. Chan was, in every sense of the word, a self-made man. Principled and personable; empathetic and energetic; determined and dogged; he achieved great professional success. Yet, he chose not to be defined by what he did but by who he was,” Chancellor Collins said. “In donning their coats, our students, now our youngest colleagues, will make a tacit commitment to always recognize and respect the shared humanity that exists between patient and caregiver. By so doing, they will honor the legacy of the man whose name will become synonymous with our School of Medicine.”

Frank Domino, MD, professor of family medicine & community health, began his keynote address to the first-year students by asking the audience to turn to their neighbors and ask them about their favorite desserts. The point of the exercise was to illustrate that everyone—including patients—has a story.

“Of the many facts and skills and behaviors you are going to learn here, one of the most important is that every patient is so much more than their diagnosis,” Dr. Domino said. “If you stop and ask, patients will tell you their stories. It’s not even optional. It’s foundational to what I do, and you will do, as physicians.”

First-year medical student Kareem Nunnally-Rivera is a Springfield native in the Population-based Urban and Rural Community Health (PURCH) track, an option for Chan School of Medicine students that focuses on health care disparities and health issues specific to urban and rural communities.

“I know all the sacrifices that my parents and family members made for me to be here, so to actually be here and see it actualized and having our first exams, it’s all really sinking in right now,” Nunnally-Rivera said. “But I can’t wait for what the future holds. And hopefully it’s bright for everyone, not just myself, but everyone here.”

Fellow first-year students Natasha Bitar and Raquel Bitar, sisters from Worcester and UMass Amherst graduates, have always gone to the same school. They put the white coats on one another during the morning ceremony.

“She’s the first person I called when I got into med school,” Natasha Bitar said about Raquel. “Grad school is unfamiliar territory for our family so we help each other a lot and it’s really rewarding to see that my younger sister and I will be here together.”

“We’re able to experience double the joy,” Raquel Bitar said. “We’ve been cared for by UMass Memorial doctors all our lives, so to be wearing the white coat that has taken care of us so many times is a really surreal moment.”

One hundred sixty-one students in the Class of ’24 received the new Chan School of Medicine coats on stage in the afternoon ceremony, replacing the white coats that had been issued to them last fall.

Provost Terence R. Flotte echoed the theme of uncertain times when the class entered medical school in 2020, “under the cloud of the pandemic and soul-wrenching turmoil of the year of George Floyd’s murder and the Black Lives Matter movement.”

Dean Flotte said, “Beginning your medical education primarily remotely set the stage for a first-year experience that was riven with challenges that your predecessors never had to face.”

Keynote speaker for the Class of ’24 Sarah H. Cheeseman, MD, professor emeritus of medicine and 2019 recipient of the Chancellor’s Medal for Distinguished Clinical Services, reflected on the white coat she wore over 50 years.

“These white coats identify you as someone who is trying to heal, to help and not to harm. But they are not imbued with the miracles that some other beings in white—like angels and fairies—seem to perform, even though you would like to be able to change bad things to good,” Dr. Cheeseman said. Success isn’t promised, “But that is your intent, and the reason you will study hard, and keep looking for new information as it comes out and keep a close eye on all your patients’ labs and other data, as well as make a connection with them that lets them know you truly care.”

“It’s been a long time coming, but it was really worth it to push it off so that it was safe for everyone. And now we got to celebrate either way,” said second-year student Gidon Salamat, as he waited in the Hanover’s lobby balcony to march in with his fellow Brightwood House classmates. “We’ve had a lot of obstacles, of course, but it makes it even sweeter, overcoming those obstacles and actually succeeding even in the face of a pandemic.”

Related stories on UMassMed News:
UMass Chan Medical School Convocation 2021 will celebrate scholarship and education
UMass Chan Medical School community celebrates ‘momentous occasion’ in Worcester
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