This post appears here courtesy of ECU News Services
. The author of this post is Rob Spahr
People cheer as first-year medical students drive by the front of the Brody School of Medicine to pick up their white coats on Dec. 18. | Photos: Cliff Hollis | Video: Rich Klindworth
People all over the world were required to adjust their plans and traditions during 2020 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The nation's medical students were not immune.
First-year medical students at East Carolina University's Brody School of Medicine began their medical education with their traditional in-person orientation — a full week of team building, socializing and informational tours — being shifted online. They had to navigate evolving instructional and testing requirements as COVID-19 guidelines changed — all while worrying about their own safety and the health of those around them.
A traditional rite of passage for medical students — the "White Coat Ceremony" — during which they are presented with the white coats they will wear in patient care areas throughout their time at ECU, was also postponed until at least the spring of 2022.
They still needed their white coats, however.
At most other medical schools, students do not receive their white coats until a few years into their medical education. But Brody students begin seeing patients in clinical areas sooner than their counterparts at other institutions, so Brody's incoming classes traditionally receive their white coats during a large ceremony, in front of their cheering loved ones, at the end of their orientation week.
On Friday afternoon, representatives Brody's Office of Student Affairs and ECU's Medical & Health Sciences Foundation found a way to still make the delivery of the white coats special.
"I was worried that we were just going to get handed our coats and lose another tradition. We’ve already lost so much of our normal med school experience because of COVID, so it’s great that they were willing to do this for us."
– Madison Shaw, president of the Class of 2024
After the students finished the final exam of their first semester, they were greeted by about a dozen people lining the roadway in front of the Brody Medical Sciences Building. Some were holding signs, but all were cheering.
As the students drove by, they were presented with bags filled with gifts from the foundation, baked goods and other goodies, notes from Brody alumni congratulating them for finishing their first semester and their personalized white coats.
"Because of COVID, we're not able to have those in-person ceremonies at this time, so we're improvising,"
said Dr. Benjamin "Jud" Copeland, Brody's interim associate dean for student affairs. "These students have missed out on a lot because of the pandemic and today is the end of their first semester of medical training. So as a reward for that, we're having a drive-thru so they can get their white coats."
The gesture was particularly meaningful to the students.
"I was worried that we were just going to get handed our coats and lose another tradition. We've already lost so much of our normal med school experience because of COVID, so it's great that they were willing to do this for us,"
said Madison Shaw, president of the Class of 2024. "It's going to be a big morale boost, which I think everyone needed. During such a stressful time, it helps us realize that all of our hard work and difficult journeys getting here are being recognized."
Titilola Babatunde, a Winterville native, said she was expecting the pickup event to be just a couple of people standing in front of the building handing out the coats.
"I loved it! It was amazing to have people cheer us on,"
Babatunde said. "This is sort of a picture of what med school has been like so far. We don't see all of the work going on behind the scenes, but then we come out and we see people cheering us on. It means so much to see everyone out here doing that for us."
First-year medical student Kamel Alachraf is no stranger to overcoming challenges.
Born in New York, he moved with his family to Syria where he lived for 10 years before relocating to Raleigh in 2011 — without his family — to continue his education after the onset of the Syrian civil war.
While pursuing an undergraduate degree in biology from North Carolina State University, Alachraf worked a full-time job to pay his own bills and support his family, which he was finally able to bring to the United States in 2016.
He chose to attend the Brody School of Medicine so he could stay "close to home."
"I was alone, without my family, from 2011 to 2016. So I wanted to stay locally and I wanted to be able to give back to this community,"
he said. "I have friends who also go to Brody who explained that this is like a tightknit family and I wanted to be a part of that. Also, their mission is very close to what I want to do, earn the skill set to become a doctor and then give back to my community."
Putting on his white coat for the first time was an emotional moment for Alachraf.
“It’s been a really tough journey to get to where I am today. And I’m just thankful for my friends, my family, God and everybody who has helped me to get to this point,”
First-year medical student Madison Shaw holds up a gift bag containing her white coat that she picked up during a drive-thru event outside of the Brody School of Medicine on Dec. 18.
he said. “To be able to put on this white coat a be able to say, ‘I made it. I’ve reached this first milestone’ — I still have more work to do, of course — but just being here is just one of the most incredible feelings that I’ve had in my life.”
Shaw also could not wait any longer to put on her white coat.
After receiving her bachelor's degree in public health from ECU in 2018, the Concord native worked at Brody — on wet lab research in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology and with clinical trials in the Department of Internal Medicine — while waiting to be accepted into the medical school.
"It feels great!"
a smiling Shaw said after putting her white coat on in the Brody parking lot. "It took me three tries to get accepted, so this is something I've worked for for a very long time and it's very emotional. I wish it could have been the traditional way, but I'm just very happy to finally get it and feel the reward and feel the recognition. And having the symbol of working so hard for what I wanted, it just kind of feels more real now."
"A class of diamonds"
The pandemic was not the only unique challenge Brody's Class of 2024 faced during the first semester of their medical education.
"There have been a lot of distractions between the election, the social justice movement and the pandemic. They've had to navigate a lot of things to be successful this semester,"
Copeland said. "And to get through this first semester and this next semester, they have had to be flexible. They still have to learn what they are required to learn, but the rules seem to change — like anything else, from week to week — on what we're able to do and what we're not able to do. They've had to be much more flexible than classes are normally."
First-year medical student Nolan Davis gets help from family trying on his white coat on Dec. 18.
As a result, Copeland said he expects big things from this class in the future.
"This group of students has been very resilient,"
he said. "By the end of their training, I expect them to be very successful."
The first-year students have not been around each other in person as much as the Brody classes before them, yet they say they already know to expect great things from their classmates.
"The word that comes to mind about this first semester is 'isolating,' but I think that it has also allowed us to find other ways to connect with our classmates and see our professors pour in the time to make sure that we understand concepts,"
Babatunde said. "There has just been so much that has come up, COVID being one, and everything it's taken to just get here. But we're just a determined class that's ready to go out and do things and change the world."
Alachraf said he thinks all of the COVID-related challenges and isolation that the Class of 2024 has faced at the beginning of their medical careers will make them stronger physicians.
"Even though we haven't seen each other, everybody is still lending a hand online, which is fantastic. This has taught me that when you put human beings in situations that are very tough, you learn to adapt and you pull together stronger at the end of the day,"
he said. "When you put carbon under pressure, you get diamonds. I think with the Class of 2024, we're going to have a class of diamonds."