KALAMAZOO, Mich.—It's still fairly easy to remember the ways COVID-19 changed everything for Western Michigan University's faculty, staff and students in the spring of 2020. As the global pandemic flexed its muscle, WMU courses moved online over the course of a single weekend as staff and faculty converted basements, bedrooms and dining rooms into spaces for virtual work. Buildings were locked and events canceled as ICU beds in the community filled up and we all waited to see what would happen next.
Students in the College of Health and Human Services faced a great deal of uncertainty. Not only were classes quickly moved online, but many internships and other clinical learning opportunities placed on hold, throwing graduation dates into question. And for those in certain graduate programs, graduation rituals like pinnings and "white coat ceremonies" became impossibilities.
"I remember my white coat ceremony day well. It was like nothing I had experienced before, and nothing like it since," says Antonio Gianelli, physician assistant preceptor and 2018 inductee into the CHHS Outstanding Alumni Academy. Currently practicing at Great Lakes Center of Rheumatology, Gianelli is a clinical instructor and preceptor for Western physician assistant (PA) students. Two of those students, Courtney Lin and Allison Trevino, started working at Great Lakes Center of Rheumatology shortly after graduation in 2020.
While making plans to attend an annual rheumatology conference on Mackinac Island, Gianelli saw an opportunity to gift these two PAs with the experience the pandemic stole from them.
"It came to me, 'Let's do it, let's make the experience happen, at least for these two students, now my colleagues,'" says Gianelli. "The event was already planned and most of our staff already planned to attend. It was perfect."
After dinner one night at the Michigan Rheumatism Society meeting on Mackinac Island, with attendees all dressed up for the Grand Hotel dining room and dinner music in the background, the surprise ceremony began with opening remarks from Dr. Joshua June, founder of the Great Lakes Center of Rheumatology. Then Gianelli, in his own white coat as an associate professor and official representative of Western's PA program, administered the oath and presented the pair with their own white coats, freshly embroidered with their names.
"When COVID-19 hit and canceled many in-person events, including our white coat ceremony, I was devastated," says Lin. "During the ceremony with our fellow providers, I was overjoyed and constantly smiling. It’s hard to explain the recognition I finally felt after putting the white coat on. Even though it is just a coat, the white coat not only symbolizes new beginnings and gratitude, but also the privilege and responsibility to become a health care provider. I am fortunate to be in an office that recognizes the importance of every health care providers dream to officially put on the white coat. It will be an experience I will never forget."
"I desperately wanted a white coat ceremony, not only for my emotional necessity, but also to recognize the accomplishments and sacrifices that my family, husband and even son had made to make this dream a reality," adds Trevino. "I moved on to start my career as PA-C at Great Lakes Center of Rheumatology, and they quickly become an irreplaceable part of my life. They made my dreams a reality with coordinating a white coat ceremony at the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island. In that moment, I donned my white coat and recited the PA oath. The hardships, sacrifices and the chaotic bonding moments of not only my schooling but also my career were suddenly validated."
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