What does the white coat mean?
Laura Gates May 01, 2023
IU medical student Lauren Turner shares her journey to the white coat
As members of the Indiana University School of Medicine Class of 2025 slid their arms into their first white coats and recited the Physician’s Oath during the annual White Coat Ceremony on April 17, it marked the transition from lectures to real-world experiences on the front lines of medicine.
For Lauren Turner, putting on that white coat signified something more. It meant she would now be part of a team providing compassionate care during patients’ darkest days—the kind of care her mother received from IU Health providers before she died of metastatic breast cancer in 2015.
It also meant honoring the courage of women and minorities who forged the path of opportunity for Black women to become physicians.
“It symbolizes achievements we’ve worked toward as minority groups,” Turner said. “Hundreds of people with same identity as mine didn’t have this opportunity in the past. It didn’t come easy, and I’m honored to be in this position.”
The doctor game
Turner decided she wanted to be a doctor in kindergarten.
She found a knee replacement video game online and quickly became obsessed. Her interest in medicine was further fueled by a fascination with family members’ sports injuries. When an older cousin showed her X-rays from his broken finger, she thought it was “the coolest thing ever.” She was later fascinated by studying her own X-rays when she was diagnosed with scoliosis.
“I really enjoyed learning about the body and incorporating things I saw and experienced in daily life,” Turner said.
When her mother, Stephanie Turner, was diagnosed with breast cancer, Lauren was in eighth grade. She remembers sitting down with her mom after school and looking at breast scans together following her mom’s first lumpectomy surgery.
“My mom is one of the strongest people I’ve ever known,” Lauren said. “I always admired her tenacity to keep pushing through stuff even when she was sick.”
The cancer went into remission but came back in 2015 when Lauren was a junior at Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School in Indianapolis. Although the cancer had metastasized, that didn’t stop Stephanie from attending her daughter’s soccer games and being there to celebrate Brebeuf’s state championship that year. She passed 42 hours after the big win.
“How have we advanced in medicine this far, and at the same time, my mom passed away young at the age of 43?” Lauren wondered. “As much as we’ve pushed the boundaries of medicine and increased our knowledge, there’s still more we don’t know and there’s so much more to be uncovered.”
Lauren still leans toward becoming an orthopaedic surgeon rather than an oncologist, but she learned a lot from her mother’s cancer journey—mostly about what it means to be a compassionate and caring physician.
A vivid memory is the time her mother came home from her first appointment with breast cancer specialist Kathy Miller, MD, the Ballvé Lantero Professor of Oncology at IU School of Medicine and a researcher in the Vera Bradley Foundation for Breast Cancer Research. Stephanie participated in a clinical trial for metastatic breast cancer at the IU Melvin and Bren Simon Comprehensive Cancer Center.
“She just switched doctors, and I had never seen her that excited coming home from a doctor’s appointment,” Lauren recalled. “She told me she felt seen and she felt heard.”
That’s the type of physician Lauren now aims to become.
“My mom’s fears were calmed by compassionate, quality care,” she said. “The white coat really symbolizes the reason I chose to pursue medicine as a career. It’s this symbol of trust, compassion and caring for people. I want people to feel seen and heard at their most vulnerable moments.”
Journey to the white coat
After graduating from Brebeuf, Lauren had a difficult choice to make—become a Meyerhoff Scholar at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) or take a soccer scholarship elsewhere.
“I decided to hang up my cleats to pursue medicine,” she said.
Program founder and UMBC President Emeritus Freeman Hrabowski, PhD, was “very persuasive” in selling the Meyerhoff Scholars program, which aims to increase diversity among future leaders in science, technology, engineering and related fields. It helped that Lauren’s aunt, Dr. Crystal Watkins Johansson, sister to Stephanie, was the first female Meyerhoff Scholar to obtain a dual MD/PhD degree and was one of the first African American women to earn a doctorate in neuroscience from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
Lauren is inspired by her aunt and feels supported by all her family members, including her dad, Troy, stepmom Sandra Martinez-Turner, and brothers John and William Turner. Her family was there to cheer her on as she walked onto the Murat Theatre stage at the Old National Centre April 17 to receive her white coat along with her IU School of Medicine classmates.
Lauren has accomplished some big goals in life, including summiting Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania with her dad. However, she said, “The longest-term goal I’ve ever achieved is getting to the white coat.”
Becoming a leader
Turner is grateful to the mentors who have supported her to this halfway point in her medical education. Among them is her Physician Mentor, Paul Wallach, MD, executive associate dean for educational affairs and institutional improvement at IU School of Medicine.
“Dr. Wallach took me and three other students in my class under his wing from day one,” Turner said. “He reminds us we’re here for a reason and we’re capable. He’s been like a cheerleader in my court.”
Wallach, who presided over the White Coat Ceremony, said Turner’s dedication as a medical student is impressive.
“Lauren is diligent with her studies, works very hard and is very goal-directed,” he said. “She is the consummate professional and is fun to be with. I have every expectation that she has an auspicious career in medicine in front of her.”
Another mentor, MaCalus Hogan, MD, MBA, cheered her on from the audience during the White Coat Ceremony. Lauren did a summer research project with Hogan, chair of the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery at the University of Pittsburgh, through the nonprofit Nth Dimensions, which develops pipeline programs to help women and underrepresented minorities gain the experience and expertise needed to enter competitive medical specialties like orthopaedic surgery.
Another key mentor for Turner, Chemen Neal, MD, was seated onstage during the White Coat Ceremony as IU School of Medicine’s new executive associate dean for equity and inclusion and chief diversity officer. In her former role with Student Affairs, Neal developed the Leadership and Academic Development Scholars (LEADS) Program, a cohort-based academic success and professional coaching program for learners from historically disadvantaged populations.
Turner credits Neal and LEADS with preparing her for success in medical school.
“I would have to say the biggest thing I have learned from Dr. Neal is when you know who you are, there is nobody and nothing that can take that away from you,” Turner said. “Oftentimes, I feel there are numerous influences that force us to go against our personal values, but she has shown that it is very possible to maintain your values and still have incredible levels of success.”
Turner serves on the executive board of the Student National Medical Association (SNMA) at IU School of Medicine, a group that supports underrepresented minority medical students. She’s also active in the Orthopaedics Student Interest Group.
“Lauren knows how to exclude all the background noise to use all of her energy to reach her goals. That is incredibly inspiring,” Neal said. “I’ve seen her go from feeling a bit nervous to being really confident and accepting that she is a leader.”
As she enters her clinical clerkships, Turner aims to treat every patient like family.
“She is a strong advocate, and I think she will take a no-nonsense approach when it comes to what is best for her patients,” Neal said.
In addition to her activities with IU School of Medicine, Turner serves with the IUPUI Student Success Corps. She finds mentoring at-risk students at Crispus Attucks High School both challenging and rewarding.
“About 95 percent are minority students,” Turner said. “I’m helping them change their mindset, telling them to take courses that are challenging, and coaching them on being confident in themselves.”
Perhaps, someday, one of her own mentees also will be putting on a white coat.