RA: “One of the most exciting, I remember, things in medical school, other than graduation, is getting the white coat and stethoscope before beginning clinical rotations, the first time we’re allowed, as med students, to start practicing basic techniques on living people. These weren’t the long coats that go down to your feet, but shorter ones that only went down to your waist. They were embroidered, of course. They came with the schools embroidered, but we would also get our names if we could afford it. I don’t remember if I got mine embroidered or not, but I probably did. We would wear them everywhere, so everyone knew you were a med student. We wore them on our clinical rotations, obviously, but we also would sometimes wear them out to bars and pubs so everyone would know we’re real med students. They got dirt super quickly of course, because their white, and I remember washing mine all the time so I could wear it. Eventually when we got our scrubs, once we’ve made more progress with our rotation, we didn’t wear the white coats as much. White is a really bad color for doctors, really, because it shows stains, especially blood, really well. It’s funny, we get another white coat (the foot length one) when we graduate, also embroidered, but we rarely wear it because it’s white. That coat’s much less exciting to get. We also got tools with our first coat. We would get the basic tools used at checkups, like the reflex hammer, the thing you use to look in people’s eyes and ears and throat (can’t remember what it’s called), tongue thermometers, and really whatever else we could afford. We didn’t need them, because tools are usually provided to you during the rotation, but they were fun to practice with on ourselves and each other. They were also fun to show off to our friends and family. I definitely don’t have my tools any more, they all broke or I lost them or gave them away. I still have my first coat, though of course I don’t wear it anymore because it’s kind of ratty looking, but I used in a Halloween costume as a mad scientist once.
AB: “Why were the initial white coats and tools so exciting? Why did you wear them so often?
RA: “We wore them everywhere because they were the first things we had that really showed we were med students. I don’t know why they were white, but there was something so exciting about having something to show to my parents that I’m really becoming a doctor.”
The white coat seems to mark an important rite of passage for medical students. Being able to work with live patients, usually about two years in, is wear students first begin to practice being doctors. For the first time, the students’ actions will have consequences on living people instead of anatomical dummies, so the coat allows students to celebrate the greater degree of responsibility they’ve taken as growing physicians. Tellingly, the coats are primarily for social performance, and not intended for use during actual work with patients due to their color.