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Recognizing leadership

Dr. Janice Fitzgerald receives Medicine's honorary white coat

By Terri Coles

Medical schools began holding white coat ceremonies to welcome their incoming classes of undergraduate students in the early 1990s.

Dr. Janice Fitzgerald, wearing a white coat and standing behind a podium, addresses the Faculty of Medicine's Class of 2025 at Memorial University.
Dr. Janice Fitzgerald addresses the Faculty of Medicine’s Class of 2025 at the White Coat Ceremony on Sept. 23, 2021.
Photo: Jennifer Armstrong

However, Memorial’s tradition of presenting an honorary white coat to a leader in the medical profession in the province is just beginning.

New tradition

This year’s recipient, Dr. Janice Fitzgerald (B.Sc.’90, MD’94, MPH’16), Newfoundland and Labrador’s chief medical officer of health, is the second. This marks a new tradition for the Faculty of Medicine.

“Recipients of the Faculty of Medicine’s honorary white coat are individuals who have been practising medicine for some time and display the qualities, passion and commitment to the profession that we hope our new learners will exhibit,” said Dr. Margaret Steele, dean of the Faculty of Medicine, at the ceremony on Sept. 23.

At the ceremony, during which members of the Faculty of Medicine’s undergraduate class of 2025 received their white coats from faculty and recited the Declaration of Geneva oath, Dr. Steele spoke about the important life transition of starting medical school.

“We have promised to engage with and listen to the people and populations we serve, connecting our research, teaching and learning service priorities with their health needs and concerns,” she said to the students. “You are now part of that commitment.”

A longstanding symbol

In a painting by Thomas Eakin called The Agnew Clinic, doctors in white coats perform a medical procedure in front of an audience.
A painting called The Agnew Clinic, by American painter Thomas Eakins (1889) reflects the adoption of white coats for physicians. Just 14 years earlier, a painting called The Gross Clinic showed doctors in black suits, which was standard at the time.
Photo: Public Domain

The white coat is a longstanding symbol of the profession that dates back to the late 1800s, said Dr. Steele at the ceremony.

Their adoption signified the scientific backing of the medical profession. The coat is thought to represent medical authority and respect, according to the American Medical Association.

The honorary white coat recognizes a medical professional who has particularly embodied those qualities in their career. The 2021 honouree, Dr. Fitzgerald, was born and raised in Newfoundland and Labrador.

She earned both her bachelor of science and doctor of medicine degrees at Memorial University. After completing her family physician residency through Dalhousie University, she returned to the province to practice.

“My great-grandmother said to me many times … ‘Janice, never be too big to be showed.'” — Dr. Janice Fitzgerald

In 2017, after completing her master of public health degree at Memorial, Dr. Fitzgerald began her career in public health — first with the Department of Health and Community Services, then as the chief medical officer of health.

That same year, she was honoured with the Reg L. Perkin Award as one of the country’s family physicians of the year by the College of Physicians of Canada.

But despite these accolades and her role as a leader in the province’s medical community, Dr. Fitzgerald reminded the incoming medical students that humility is a valuable trait for physicians.

“Humility is key,” she said. “My great-grandmother said to me many times when I was younger, ‘Janice, never be too big to be showed.'” That’s still good advice and it has frequently echoed in her head throughout the pandemic, she shared.

‘Hold fast’

After receiving her white coat from Dr. Steele, Dr. Fitzgerald addressed members of the Class of 2025 about the privilege and responsibility of their new role and the important place it will hold in the lives of their patients.

A group of new medical students, all wearing white coats, stand in the atrium of the Faculty of Medicine building at Memorial University. The photo is shot from above.
The Memorial University Faculty of Medicine class of 2025.
Photo: Jennifer Armstrong

“That vulnerability and trust deserves my greatest respect every day, whether it’s one person in my office or 500,000 people across this province,” she said.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has made Dr. Fitzgerald, who often leads the province’s televised pandemic updates, a household name in Newfoundland and Labrador.

She joked about her newly public position and its pressures. However, Dr. Steele remarked on how Dr. Fitzgerald has helped the province through the past year-and-a-half.

“Through some of the more difficult times like provincewide lockdowns, or when community clusters caused concerns, she has encouraged Newfoundlanders and Labradorians to ‘hold fast,'” said Dr. Steele.

“She has demonstrated exceptional leadership and we are incredibly proud and thankful that she has been leading the pandemic in Newfoundland and Labrador.”

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