An Olympic Journey: Professor Offers White Coat Wisdom

By April Wilkerson 
Writer, OU College of Medicine

Each year, during a ceremony where incoming medical students receive their first white coats, an OU College of Medicine faculty member addresses the class, dispensing insight and encouragement for the journey ahead.

Michael Talbert, M.D., speaks to members of the Class of 2020 during the White Coat Ceremony.

This year’s White Coat Ceremony speaker, Michael Talbert, M.D., chair of the Department of Pathology, wove his wisdom into an account of the women’s 84.5-mile bicycle race at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. The race, which had 68 competitors on a course that featured a long, steep climb and a dangerous, winding descent, offers parallels for the medical education journey.

In such races, bicyclists take turns setting the pace and working against wind resistance while others drop behind and catch a break. “I think this situation of quietly working for others is analogous to the attending physicians and other teachers who will work with you through medical school,” Talbert said. “They will invest countless hours with you, teaching and mentoring you along the path to becoming a physician. You will remember many of your teachers and mentors throughout your life because of the difference they will make at this time in your development.”

The strategy of drafting in a race means that groups or pairs of cyclists often can move faster than a single cyclist can.

“There are two lessons here for medical students,” Talbert said. “As you don the white coat and launch into your medical training, don’t overwork at any point; it can be hard to recover. You’ve got four years and a carefully designed curriculum. In fact, do it right and you’ll keep learning every day of your professional life. After some 30 years in medicine, I still learn new things nearly every day.

 “Second lesson: A group effort can be superior to a solo one. Work with your classmates. In the next few weeks, you will be learning about the molecules and cells of the body before moving on to organs and human anatomy. Much of your learning will be in groups. Not only will your knowledge increase, but you’ll begin friendships that will last a lifetime.”

First-year medical students receive their first white coats at an event during their orientation to the OU College of Medicine.

In competitions like the Olympic bicycle race, athletes must know their strengths as well as their limits. The same is true for medical students, who will be exposed to many disciplines of medicine during their education. Choosing one to pursue may be difficult, but it’s important for students to discern what they’re good at doing and what suits them.

Similarly, it’s important for students to be aware of the areas of medicine where they’re not as proficient.

“Know your limits,” Talbert said. “Be honest with yourself and those around you regarding your skills and knowledge. It is always better to ask for help if possible than to risk an error or other bad outcome.”
In the Olympic race, the bicyclist in the lead with a flat six miles to go appeared poised to win. However, a group of three women from three different countries began working together and ultimately took gold, silver and bronze with less than 200 yards to go.

“There’s another lesson here for students – the power of a mixed group,” Talbert said. “Health care is best done by a team. I can’t wait for you to attend our gastrointestinal tumor board, where physicians from different specialties, including surgery, radiology, pathology, gastroenterology and oncology come together with oncologic nurses, nutritionists and clinical trial nurses to plan optimal therapy for each cancer patient. A team of widely different specialties working together to provide the best care.”

The final lesson, for both an Olympic race and attending medical school, is simple: Do your best. “Doing one’s best is the hallmark of a professional,” Talbert said. “As you put on those white coats, remember that you are entering a wonderful profession at a truly exciting time in medicine and have begun an incredible journey.”