They’re now a little like a superhero.
They have their own cape.
Really, it’s a white coat, and Sunday’s rite-of-passage ceremony represented what the white coat means to the medical profession – a symbol meant to instill trust and comfort in any patient they see.
These 20 students – three men, 17 women — slipped it on Sunday in front of family and friends inside the Hayworth Fine Arts Center and officially began their 27-month educational journey at High Point University.
As they stood onstage, at least a dozen iPhones glowed and followed their every move. People in the audience were proud. They should be. These students are an HPU first – the first class to start the school’s physician assistant master’s degree program.
They beat out more than 800 other students for one slot, they’re whip-smart individuals hailing from various corners of the country, and they all want to become what’s known as a PA.
They all have their stories why. Here are three.
‘I was born to do this’
Backstage Sunday, Rachel Walker couldn’t keep still.
She shifted from foot to foot, and as the recorded classical music built to a crescendo inside the auditorium, she and her fellow PA students knew it was time to file inside and begin.
“This is so nerve-wracking,’’ she mouthed to the student in front of her.
It was. But she was ready. She’d been waiting for this moment a long time.
It goes back to high school in Jacksonville, Florida. She was getting ready to run a cross-country race when she heard someone yell, “Hey, I need some help. Anyone know CPR?’’
She did. She was a trained lifeguard, and she had taken classes in basic lifesaving and CPR. So, she ran to help a runner who had collapsed and started CPR.
“What do you want me to do?’’ someone asked behind her.
It was an athletic trainer. She didn’t stop.
“I’m 16,’’ she said between chest compressions. “You should be telling me what to do.’’
She revived the collapsed runner, and later that night, she sat on the edge of her bed. She had something to tell her dad.
“Maybe, I don’t want to be an English teacher,’’ she told him. “I think I want to go into medicine.’’
Her dad smiled. He was a PA himself, and he knew what captivated his only daughter, his oldest of three. The adrenaline rush. Rachel loved the adrenaline rush she found in medicine, and she wanted to experience it more. She did.
She became a lifeguard for eight years, graduated last year with a biology degree from the University of North Florida and became acclimated in the medical worlds of acronyms.
She trained as an EMT. She shadowed doctors at one hospital, and after graduation, she worked as an EKG tech and later as an ER tech at another hospital in Jacksonville.
She changed IVs, changed beds and became in her words a “CNA on steroids.’’ Then, after her 12-hour shift, she’d sit at the kitchen table and tell her dad about her day.
“Dad, you’re not going to believe this!’’ she’d say.
Brad Walker would always listen and smile. His girl. In medicine. Just like him.
He was there Sunday with his wife, Suzy, and their two sons. They drove seven hours from Jacksonville to see Rachel don in her white coat. When she did, she beamed.
“Welcome to the medical family,’’ her dad thought as he watched.
She is glad to join.
“It’s like that quote from Joan of Arc, ‘I’m not afraid. I was born to do this,’’’ says Rachel, 23. “I’m scared, scared about being a grown-up. And I know it’s 27 months, and it’ll be long and drawn out. But it will be so worth it.’’
The joy of starting anew
Megan Anderson stood at the bottom of the stage Sunday, the sole of her high-heeled shoe perched on the first step. Her classmates were being called up in alphabetical order to get their white coat.
She was the first.
She wouldn’t have believed it 38 days ago. Back then, she was taking a break from teaching 32 first-graders English in Spain, and she was relaxing with friends near a beach along Spain’s eastern coast.
That’s when she saw the email from HPU. Her hands started to shake.
“I don’t believe this is actually happening,’’ she told herself.
She had worked hard for this. In 2011, she graduated with a psychology degree and a minor in Spanish from the University of Arizona. Yet, when she decided to become a PA, she knew she had to bone up on her knowledge of science.
She took nine classes in and around her hometown of Phoenix, and she worked in a physical therapy office that gave her a crash course in medicine and the importance of empathy.
She befriended patients struggling to get better. One had a traumatic brain injury, and he was no older than 29.
He always came to the office with his mom. All three became close, and when Anderson went to Spain to teach last year, they gave her a gift: a flowering plant.
She still has it.
Anderson went to Spain to see the world, improve her Spanish and get ready for the next chapter in her life. She had hoped it would be as a PA student. She applied to 10 schools and interviewed at three.
She liked HPU the best. But she was on the wait list.
On May 1, when the email from HPU came and the call followed, her life went fast forward. She flew home and later drove with her father cross-country. They went 2,000 miles over three days to find another part of the world she only knew by name.
North Carolina has now become a part of her.
“Even now, I can’t follow the reality of it,’’ says Anderson, 26. “I’ll be sitting in class, and I’ll have an ‘Oh My God’ moment. I’ll see the professor up there, and I’ll think, ‘Where am I? Oh yeah, I’m starting the rest of my life.’ That is a euphoric feeling.’’
An unforgettable moment
As Jamey Williams walked out of the Hayworth Fine Arts Center wearing his new white coat, he stuck out his tongue to two people in the audience who had changed his life.
The first? His dad.
Todd Williams is a dermatologist in Asheboro, North Carolina, and over the years, he had taken Jamey to his office often to help with an emergency involving one of his patients.
Jamey, the oldest of four boys, became no stranger to blood.
He had seen his dad stitch up neighbors in the family’s kitchen, and for five straight summers, from ages 13 to 18, he had worked with his dad when they flew to the Dominican Republic for mission trips.
But Todd really thought Jamey would choose entertainment, not medicine.
Jamey was the charismatic front man for Counterfall, a popular alternative Christian rock band. Jamey also had won lead roles in high school plays and had snagged a part in the TV show, “One Tree Hill.’’ He even had an agent.
But when Jamey came to HPU, he chose to major in biology, and he wanted to become a PA. He started the school’s PA Club his sophomore year and brought in doctors and PAs to help students understand the changing world of medicine.
After graduation, Jamey was accepted into two PA schools, Wake Forest and HPU. On his parents’ advice as well as his own, Jamey chose HPU.
“I like the idea of history,’’ says Todd, 51. “Jamey will be a part of something historic from the very start and have the honor of saying, ‘I was in the very first graduation class of the program.’ There’s something very gratifying about that.’’
Now, to Jamey’s wife.
On May 9, Jamey graduated from HPU with a degree in biology. On May 24, he married to his college sweetheart, Shannon Diehl, a senior at HPU. On June 1, he started PA school.
And Sunday, he got his white coat.
As he stood onstage, he made sure to capture a mental snapshot. He did the same thing at his wedding two weeks ago at a North Carolina farm. He wanted to soak it in.
Sunday was one of those moments he wanted to remember for the rest of his life – him in his white coat inside the Hayworth Fine Arts Center, with his wife and two families, his biological one and his PA one.
“I wanted to savor what was happening,’’ Jamey said minutes after the ceremony Sunday. “I know it sounds super cheesy, but this is a glorified blessing I’ve been given, and I wanted to thank God I’m here.”