PHILADELPHIA — Nicola Habash's mother held out the short white coat for him.
"Here you go, young man. This is it," she said as he slipped his arms through the sleeves.
With that, Habash was among 280 Thomas Jefferson University students who began their medical school journey Friday during a two-hour ceremony at the Crystal Tea Room of The Wanamaker Office Building in Philadelphia.
This newest class of doctors-to-be comes to medicine having lived through a hundred-year pandemic, having known people who died or suffered, and having learned how a disease can upend the world.
"It's going to be interesting to see this group of students," said Mark Tykocinski, Jefferson's provost and executive vice president for academic affairs. "How it will change them? I have no idea. I'd like to think it makes people more flexible. The future isn't entirely predictable. You often have to go with the flow and adapt, and certainly, that's a critical quality for a physician."
The growing threat of the delta variant may be the next test of that flexibility.
Habash, a University of Delaware graduate from Wilmington, experienced COVID-19 firsthand. It kept him in bed for a few days and fatigued for weeks after, he said. Now, he's vaccinated. But his grandmother can't be vaccinated because of a health condition, so he also saw firsthand how health disparities affect patients.
Every year, new medical students and their families gather for speeches that culminate in the signature coat ceremony and the reading of the Hippocratic oath. This year, for the second time, each student also received a Narcan kit, which helps to reverse opioid overdoses, a symbol of the epidemic still gripping the city — and of the responsibilities they are assuming.
They will begin classes Monday. Lily Steele-Dadzie, 23, of Cherry Hill, who got her undergraduate degree at Johns Hopkins, can't wait.
"I'm excited, a bit overwhelmed, knowing that I will be following in the path of giants," she said after hearing speeches about eminent doctors. "I'm going to have to work hard to make my mark, and I do want to make a mark."