White Coat Ceremony Catapults a Richly-Hued Class into Medical School

08/25/03    Portland, Ore.

The new class includes a woman who beat all odds to survive, a fighter pilot freshly home from the Persian Gulf, a rural Oregonian first in her family to attend college, and triple the number of minority students as last year

One hundred eight new Oregon Health & Science University medical students don the time-honored garb of their profession - the white coat - for the first time on Friday, Aug. 29, 2003. A life-changing moment that is both solemn and joyful, poignant and stunning, in each student's mind the white coat signifies a life devoted to healing, science and compassion.

Barbara Alexander, a 33-year-old African American and a research coordinator at OHSU, epitomizes this commitment. Perhaps no one in her class has had to overcome so much to matriculate into medical school. As a five-year-old, Alexander's mother committed suicide and when her father declined to raise her, her grandparents stepped in. Even then, she was devoted to medicine, riding her bike to Mt. Tabor Convalescent Center where she helped nurses turn patients and offered constant care. As a high school senior, her grandfather was diagnosed with lung cancer and Alexander cared for him through the moment he died.

Unfortunately, several years later Alexander's grandmother also committed suicide and Alexander found herself in an abusive relationship with a boyfriend who eventually stabbed her 30 times. Alexander's steely will came to the fore as she actually drove herself to the hospital. Today, she speaks at PSU on domestic violence and volunteers to aid other abused women. "I want to be a mentor, a role model," she said. "I survived. I got away. I'm a success story. I want people to know you don't have to be uneducated, you don't have to be poor, you don't have to be stupid to be abused. It can happen to anyone."

Today Alexander is happily married, and despite - or perhaps because - of her experiences, medicine still calls her. "I had all these tragedies, this adversity, these things to overcome. But throughout, my one constant has been my dedication to people. I'm a caregiver. It's simply who I am."

From across the planet and a world of different life experiences, Thomas Ewing, a 34-year-old naval fighter pilot, was admitted to last year's medical class but had to defer when called to duty in the recent Gulf war. There he served on the U.S.S Abraham Lincoln, a nuclear carrier on a 10-month mission - the longest mission the ship has sailed since Vietnam.

Ewing always planned to go to medical school, but took an educational hiatus to become a pilot. The hiatus evolved into an 11-year commitment to the Navy, and he insists his experiences sculpted him into a much better medical candidate. "I like the scientific aspect of medicine and the fact that you always have to keep learning," Ewing said, "and most of all, I like the contact with people. I'm afraid I wouldn't have made a good doctor before the Navy. I would have been more aggressive and selfish. Now, with my experience in personnel management, I know how to relate to people, how to put them at ease. That helps when you're trying to heal," he said.

Not surprisingly, Ewing hasn't made any final decisions about a medical specialty, but is leaning toward emergency medicine.

Back home in Oregon, the medical school class of 2007 is rounded out by students like Jennifer Holliday, a 24-year-old John Day native who is the first in her family to attend college. In pursuit of a combined M.D./M.P.H. degree, she has already spent three weeks at OHSU studying epidemiology. Holliday spent her one-week break before matriculation back home on her parents ranch, working in the hayfields on a tractor all day.

A rodeo princess in high school, Holliday went to college at Stanford and initially had a difficult time adjusting to urban life. "I was ashamed of being from a rural area," she said. "I had different pastimes from my classmates, like horseback riding. But over time I realized that's what makes me different. One of my jobs in life is to make sure people understand rural communities."

Holliday's Stanford experience eventually made her stronger. She organized a group of college peers to visit John Day for an eight-day alternative spring break. The students' schedules were announced on the radio daily, and a dozen community leaders volunteered to let students shadow them in diverse jobs. The students met with the manager of a ranch owned by the Nature Conservancy and listened to loggers, ranchers, environmentalists and forest service professionals. "It was a great way to combine my two worlds," Holliday said. "The last few years have cemented who I am and made me proud. My passion is helping people, and my background will make me a better leader, a better physician and better able to help my community. I love Eastern Oregon. There's a real need for primary care and for people who understand what it's like to live here and enjoy it."

The White Coat Ceremony will take place from 10:45 a.m. to noon, Friday, August 29, 2003, in the OHSU Auditorium (formerly known as the Old Library Auditorium).

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