A Commitment on My Family’s Behalf

I was unemployed the day my daughter was born. Instead of taking her home to a decorated nursery, she joined us in the cramped spare room my wife and I had been occupying at my in-law’s house. By the time my daughter turned six months old, I was working at an insurance company, but the modest salary still wasn’t enough to afford our own apartment. I was at my desk waiting for my next customer service call when I received the news from the Office of Admissions.  As the initial shock and excitement settled, my next thought was different from most students’: I thought about the incredible difference this news would make in my daughter’s life.

A month after her first birthday, I walked across the stage at Furman’s McAlister Auditorium and a short white coat was placed on my shoulders. I shook hands with experienced physicians and talented teachers. Lastly, I took an oath. This was our White Coat Ceremony, a formal occasion repeated with some variation by medical students across the country—and my formal welcome to a career in medicine.

At USCSOM Greenville, every new class writes a unique oath for their respective White Coat Ceremony. The class of 2020 collectively swore to treat our patients with the utmost respect, to express gratitude for the physicians who came before us, and to build upon their knowledge for the betterment of our profession and our communities. We promised to practice medicine with integrity, conscientiousness and humility. The public demonstration of our oath invoked a spectrum of emotions. We were humbled as the faculty reminded our friends and families that we were chosen from thousands of highly qualified applicants who all aspired to become physicians. We felt thankful for the trust that has come to be associated so ubiquitously with that simple white garment (though at this stage in our careers, I feel it is perhaps undeserved). We experienced tremendous relief to realize we had made it this far, but also trepidation, because the White Coat Ceremony is also a reminder of the journey that lies ahead.

For some of us, the oath carried more than its usual weight. As one of several students with a spouse and child of my own, I made a commitment on my family’s behalf as well. I tacitly committed my wife to an increased burden in our household as I devote my time and energy to a demanding education and career. I committed her to looming uncertainty as we wait to see where I match for residency in four years. I committed her to a future that will be doubtlessly difficult, trying and exhausting, but I also walked across that stage knowing that I had her full support. My daughter, on the other hand, is still learning to say “mama” and “daddy.” She hasn’t had any voice in this decision, but nonetheless, my oath has committed her to a certain life as well.

The hours I work as a physician will sometimes be as grueling as the summer I spent working rotating twelves in a chemical plant; most days, I’m already in class before my daughter wakes up. The work will sometimes be messier than anything I dealt with as a janitor. I will have to be both more patient and diplomatic than I was as a waiter (which was already no easy task). Despite this, my acceptance to medical school was also my family’s greatest benediction. This white coat will have a tremendous effect on my family, and in so many ways beyond my ability to provide material care. My daughter will grow up knowing that her father has a special place in the community, that what I do is fundamentally helpful and valued. She will grow up knowing that her parents worked together and overcame steep odds for this opportunity. When she sees where I work and what I do, she will witness special things other children don’t get to see. If my daughter one day decides to wear a white coat like Daddy’s, her path will hopefully be less circuitous because I will have traveled the same road before. And by providing health care to my community, I’ll hopefully be able to lessen the blow of health disparities and help other families that haven’t been this fortunate.

Although I couldn’t be happier to start my journey into medicine, I also realize I never would have made it this far without perseverance, support and an extraordinary amount of luck. My career will be full of commitments to my family, community and the institutions I represent. But while I’m counting my commitments, I’ll also make one more—to keep reminding myself of how incredibly fortunate I am to be on this side of the stethoscope, wearing a white coat.

 

Alex Hartman

Though originally from southern California, I spent most of my childhood and youth in Irmo, SC. After studying biology and biomedical science at the University of South Carolina, I spent several years variously involved with research and teaching. Upon meeting my amazing daughter, I was inspired to pursue medicine with the hope of addressing inequities in pediatric health care.

 

 

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