Donning White Coats, And A Mission The Newest Medical Students At Mcp/hahnemann Take An Oath To Heal.

Posted: August 08, 1998

Two hundred and fifty young men and women walked into a Center City hotel conference room yesterday afternoon, a colorful array of suits and ties, slacks and dresses.

They all walked out clothed in the same starched white coat.

Amid a backdrop of hope and jitters, and basking in the loving gaze of family and friends, the first-year medical students at MCP/Hahnemann School of Medicine joined at the Wyndham Franklin Plaza Hotel in a White-Coat Ceremony, the symbolic beginning to their professional career.

It was an emotional ending to the orientation week at the medical school, which was shaken 2 1/2 weeks ago when the school's overseer, the Allegheny Health, Education and Research Foundation, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

Students and parents were assured yesterday that the medical school would continue.

A long-term plan to keep the school as an independent, nonprofit institution is being considered, school administrators said.

Like the medical school, the white coat is steeped in history. ``It is the most visible symbol of our profession,'' said Jonathan D. Gomberg, a Medical College of Pennsylvania graduate, in his remarks.

The coat is symbolic of the healing spirit of the physician, but the ceremony - which many medical schools perform - is a new innovation. It was created in 1993 by the Arnold P. Gold Foundation at Columbia University in New York.

The philosophy is that the doctor's white coat is a cloak of compassion. While wearing their coats, the students take a variation of the Hippocratic oath, the credo of the Greek physician who practiced medicine nearly 2,400 years before the first HMO.

Formerly, the oath was sworn only at the end of medical-school education. Taking the oath at the outset of medical school makes students more aware of their duties as a physician, according to current wisdom.

``As you try to live up to the oath, you will do some good,'' said Dorothy McKenna Brown, the school's interim president, appointed three weeks ago.

Fifteen at a time, the students filed up to the stage, where faculty members helped them into the white coats. They smiled, fresh-faced, and filed off.

The school's financial crisis, which seemed to be on everyone's mind yesterday, actually had a positive side, said Barbara F. Atkinson, the school's dean, to the new students and their guests.

``This situation has given us the opportunity to rethink why we're here. We're going to continue our dedication to bringing people into the nearly 300 years of tradition'' between the schools, she said. Hahnemann was founded in 1848; Medical College of Pennsylvania began two years later as Woman's Medical College, the nation's first medical college for women. The schools were merged several years ago.

Some numbers: The 250 members of the Class of 2002 were culled from 9,500 applicants, of which 1,000 were interviewed. The class is 57 percent women and 54 percent Pennsylvanian. Eighty percent of the class is white or Asian American; the rest are mainly African Americans but include some Mexican Americans, American Indians and Puerto Ricans.

Many class members are entering medical school after changing careers. Robin Lowenthal, 32, was a journalist who was steered into medicine after visiting refugee camps in Croatia. ``I decided that medicine was really a way to directly have an impact,'' she said. ``A person's health is such a precious thing, and if you have the chance of improving someone's life, that is phenomenal.''

The youngest students are 19 years old, the oldest 36. Their minimum grade point average was 3.4 out of 4.0, and a Medical College Admissions Test test score of 9.6 out of 15, officials said.

Another number: First-year tuition, fees and living expenses are $41,505.

After the ceremony, Stephen and Denise Weinberg hugged daughter Nicole, 23. This was a happy day for Stephen; he is a 1971 Hahnemann University graduate and now practices cardiology.

``I'm excited for her,'' he said as she accepted congratulations from a colleague.

As for the uncertainty about the school's future, Stephen Weinberg said, ``this will probably be behind us in six to 12 weeks. I have faith in the process. We won't allow a medical school with this heritage to go under.''

After the ceremony, the students milled around, occasionally shifting their shoulders and arms, feeling the coats' stiff cotton for the first time, sticking their hands into the broad pockets that will hold stethoscopes, pens and notepads.

Classes begin Monday, 8:30 a.m.

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