On the first day of the first clinical rotation of his junior year, Michael Cowan, MD, FACP, VADM, USN (Retired), was sent down to the laundry room in the basement of Barnes Hospital in St. Louis, Mo. It as the late-1960s and he and some of his buddies from Washington University were going to get their white coats.

“We finally found the laundry room, and the lady who was on duty there handed us our white coats,” said Dr. Cowan in an interview before he delivered the keynote address at Salus University’s annual White Coat Ceremony. “She gave me mine and I was so proud to have it, despite the fact that it had coffee stains on it and the pocket was embroidered with somebody else’s name. I remember scrounging around and finding a piece of white hospital tape and a Magic Marker and wrote ‘Cowan’ on it. So that was my coat. There was no ceremony whatsoever.”

My, how things have changed from the laundry room at Barnes Hospital to the stage of the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts.

Dr. Cowan Speaking at White Coat Ceremony
On August 16, Salus University hosted its annual White Coat Ceremony for 346 students at the Kimmel Center, an event that represented the transition from student to professional-in-training. The University’s first-year students from all clinical programs received the symbol of their profession – the white coat.

The first White Coat Ceremony was held on August 20, 1993, at Columbia University College of Physicians & Surgeons. The ceremony usually includes the taking of the Hippocratic Oath, the Oath of Maimonides or some other student-written oath. The Salus students recited the Oath of Professionalism after receiving their white coats.

“The meaning of the white coat is important. It just wasn’t emphasized to me,” said Dr. Cowan. “So I like the idea of saying this is a new identity for you, this is your commencement into a different world and that you take this as a symbol of the pride of being a healthcare professional. I think that’s important.”

Dr. Cowan earned his MD from Washington University and then completed his residency and fellowship training at the Navy Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. He had a long and illustrious career with the U.S. Navy culminating in his selection as the 34th Naval Surgeon General and Chief Bureau of Medicine and Surgery in 2001.

Throughout his naval career, Dr. Cowan served as an academician, practitioner, researcher and teacher with numerous tours of duty around the world. He held many prominent leadership and management positions affecting nearly every aspect of peacetime and wartime healthcare. Particularly notable was his service as the joint staff surgeon, deputy director of TRICARE and as Navy Surgeon General.

He accepted the invitation to be the keynote speaker of the White Coat Ceremony not only because he believes the ceremony itself is a great idea - celebrating the onset of something – but also because of his close association with University President Michael H. Mittelman, OD ’80, MPH, MBA, FAAO, FACHE.
“When Dr. Mittelman asked me to come and do this, I was intrigued. By its very nature, it’s turning people’s faces to the future,” said Dr. Cowan. “And I wanted to see Mike again. We worked very closely for a long time – during difficult times – when he was my executive assistant in the Navy. He was my protector. He was the sane little bird that sat on my shoulder that followed me around and said, ‘Don’t do that, admiral.’ So to come up here and see his school and the students is a delightful opportunity for me.”

Drs. Mittelman and CowanDuring his keynote address, Dr. Cowan stressed to the students to make their lives have meaning, decide what that is, and then pursue it. To “think about it now and make it happen.”

For Dr. Cowan, that happened for him after he got drafted to serve in Vietnam in 1971.

“I went into the Navy kicking and screaming. I wanted nothing to do with it,” he said. “But I found that I loved it. I was treated well despite my bad attitude. I was accepted as a professional immediately and I found that my satisfaction – which became my purpose in life – was taking
care of the people who take care of us, those who put their lives on the line to keep us safe.”

Dr. Cowan shares a story about when that lightbulb came on for him – a sense of finding that meaning in his life. He had just arrived at Camp Lejeune, N.C., assigned to the Marines. He distinctly remembers the date, July 3, 1971. It was a hot summer day, and he was moving into a house in the suburbs outside the camp.

“I looked up and walking across the street toward me was a guy carrying a six-pack of Budweiser,” said Dr. Cowan. “As he got closer, I realized this was probably the strongest human being on the planet. He was just sinew and gristle and muscle.”

The man introduced himself as Retired Gunnery Sergeant Holcomb of the U.S. Marine Corps and said to Dr. Cowan, “You ‘ve been working hard and I’ve been watching you. You look pretty hot. I bet you could use one of these,” and he handed a beer to Dr. Cowan.

The two sat on the porch and started talking. Dr. Cowan proceeded to unload on the retired Marine, complaining him that he didn’t want to be there, how unfair it was, that he had to get his hair cut and couldn’t keep his ponytail. And the Marine just listened and laughed.

“After we’d finished the six-pack, he stood up and said, ‘Sir, I know you’ve got work to do. But you’re going to love this neighborhood. They’re wonderful people, wonderful neighbors. But they’re civilians, they’re not like us.’ And he walked off my porch,” said Dr. Cowan. “He knew that I had just reported that day – it was Day One for me – but he said, ‘They’re not like us.’ I thought, I’ve just been taught a lesson. I’d better figure out what it was. And it opened my eyes. And as that lesson came home, then that became my life.”