In his welcoming remarks at this year’s White Coat Ceremony, Dean Robert J. Alpern, M.D., Ensign Professor of Medicine, assured the 104 students in the Class of 2020 that their acceptance to Yale was not a mistake. Quite the contrary. Their extraordinary academic, scientific, and extracurricular activities, Alpern said, set them apart. “We expect you to be a leader in the medical world of tomorrow,” he said.

It was in that spirit of “extraordinary potential,” that keynote speaker Gary V. Desir, M.D. ’80, HS ’83, FW ’84, professor and chair of medicine, and other medical school faculty helped the new students don their white coats on the stage of Woolsey Hall.

In his address, Desir said that although the tools of medicine may change, certain fundamental principles that Yale has always embraced hold true. Physicians’ understanding of diseases like cancer and HIV/AIDs has evolved over the course of Desir’s career and with the new era of precision medicine, doctors must deal with technological innovation. Yale, Desir said, “provides the intellectual environment for the molding of mind and character that enables one to adapt to different circumstances and changing obligations, and outfits one for life’s work in medicine.”

Desir recounted personal and professional experiences during his medical training at Yale, which included an internship and fellowship before he joined the faculty. He met the classmate who would become his wife (Deborah Desir, M.D. ’80, HS ’83, FW ’84) while standing over an anatomy table. In 2010 he was on a team of Yale physicians that traveled to his native Haiti only months after an earthquake killed 300,000 people. There, he and his colleagues struggled to treat their patients with limited resources—few medications were available and there were no lab tests.

“At times,” he said, “the team expressed frustration, and talked about the futility of what we were trying to contribute, and wondered if we were contributing anything at all. But to everyone’s surprise, our patients did not see it that way at all. As we were getting ready to leave, they expressed extraordinary gratitude to us for being there and caring for them, and said they trusted us and believed we were doing the best we could for them, given the circumstances.”

Desir advised the students to be true caregivers, to practice patient-focused care and “fully appreciate the human side of medicine.” A practice filled with humility, presence, and empathy can go a long way to change how a patient feels, he said.

The 104 students (52 men and 52 women) come from 43 colleges and universities. Twenty of the incoming students are pursuing an M.D./Ph.D., and 30 percent of the new class was born outside of the United States, in places like Norway, China, South Africa, and Iraq.

After donning their coats and receiving their stethoscopes, donated by alumni, Nancy R. Angoff, M.P.H. ’81, M.D. ’90, HS ’93, M.Ed., associate dean for student affairs, read the school’s Human Relations Code of Conduct. She reminded students that diverse perspectives make up the student body at Yale and that mutual respect is at the heart of the school’s priorities.

Desir and Alpern both encouraged the students to follow in the path of leaders that have come before them, reminding them of the school’s history as a leader in medical education. “So, in that spirit, we will pass our torches on to you,” Desir said. “We will help you carry them for a while, and then the rest will be up to you.”