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Two students, two unique paths converge at VCU’s annual School of Medicine white coat ceremony

Shira Lanyi dons her white coat for the first time at the VCU School of Medicine's annual white c...
Shira Lanyi dons her white coat for the first time at the VCU School of Medicine's annual white coat ceremony. (Photo by Tom Kojcsich, University Relations)

Shira Lanyi’s dad was a urologist. Every day, she remembered, he would come home from work wearing his white coat.

“While I didn’t quite understand what he did for a living, I knew he was upstanding, hardworking, and smart,” Lanyi said with a look of sweet nostalgia.

Lanyi saw her father’s love of science and love for people power his work. She was inspired by how open, engaging and respectful he was with patients. Visiting her dad’s clinic sparked in Lanyi an early interest in science and medicine.

More than 20 years later, after embarking on a career as a ballerina and enduring a family tragedy, she is returning to those early interests as an incoming student at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine. Lanyi and 184 classmates donned their white coats for the first time Aug. 3 at the school’s white coat ceremony.

The annual event is a special time for medical students. For two — Layni and fellow first-year student Sam Kraus — the ceremony also served as a milestone for journeys that began on different paths.

Unconventional journey to medical school

Lanyi’s dance career began at age 8. While she had an early interest in science, she had a deeper passion for dance. Initially, the structure and discipline of ballet bothered the free-spirited Lanyi, but those were the qualities she grew to love about it. She dedicated her childhood and teen years to perfecting the art, and upon graduating from high school, she accepted a position as a ballerina.

“As hard as it is to become a doctor, it’s just as hard to become a ballerina. I had to follow my heart,” she said.

She began her professional career with the Richmond Ballet, where she would dance for eight seasons.

Lanyi's dance career began at age 8. She later spent nearly a decade with the Richmond Ballet before retiring in 2015. (Sarah Fergusson, Richmond Ballet)
Lanyi's dance career began at age 8. She later spent nearly a decade with the Richmond Ballet before retiring in 2015. (Sarah Fergusson, Richmond Ballet)

At 22, Lanyi suffered a devastating hip injury that resulted in a six-month break from dancing. The injury forced her to think about life after dance. She decided to act on her interest in medicine. She asked her doctor if she could shadow him while she recovered. It was during that time her interest in medicine grew into a passion.

“I fell in love with it. I loved the clinic. I loved how he involved me in diagnosing patients. It drew me to medicine even more,” she said. “From there I made sure to volunteer, shadow or do research every summer to stay close to medicine.”

Around the time her passion for science was reignited, Lanyi’s mom was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer and given less than a year to live. In 2014, at the height of Lanyi’s career, she left the Richmond Ballet and moved to Israel to care for her mother. During her time there, she danced with the Israel Ballet in Tel Aviv.

“While dancing was my therapy during this tough time, I knew I was getting further away from medicine. The hardest part was deciding when to stop,” Lanyi said.

Her mom, a VCU alumna, passed away later that year.

The final bow

With the death of her mother weighing heavy on her heart and her passion for dance lessening, Lanyi returned home to reunite with her friends, family and the Richmond Ballet.

“I had just lost my mom, I missed my friends and family, and I was losing my passion for dance. I needed to go home for some clarity,” she said.

Back in Richmond, Lanyi finally decided to embark on another journey, this time to become a doctor. During a two-week tour with the Richmond Ballet in China in 2015, she took her final bow at the Shanghai Grand Theatre and retired. She took her first chemistry class just one week later. Lanyi is a 2018 graduate of the College of Humanities and Sciences and was also in the Honors College

Looking forward

Now 31, Lanyi’s passion, drive and hard work have prepared her for medical school. “Because of my previous career, I am able to work hard and do my best but I’m also able to be patient with myself,” she said.

She encourages nontraditional medical school students to be bolstered by their experiences.

“Don’t get discouraged by the setbacks of your nontraditional path,” she said. “It’s those experiences that are projecting you forward. They will strengthen you in ways you didn’t think was possible.”

She is still in awe that she is finally on her way to becoming a doctor. For her, the white coat ceremony represents the journey behind and the journey ahead. 

“The white coat ceremony shows that I’ve fully dedicated myself to get to this point,” she said. “It’s like ballet and the tutu. You don’t wear a tutu until you are a ballerina. And you don’t get a white coat until you’ve entered medicine.”

From her career as a ballerina to the death of her mother, Lanyi speaks about her unique journey to medical school with enthusiasm. She is confident that each experience has brought her to this point.

“The transition from dance to medical school gave me a new strength and confidence. This is a totally new challenge and that’s exactly what my mom would’ve wanted for me,” Lanyi said.

“She was a breath of fresh air. She was strong, smart and had an amazing work ethic,” Lanyi said of her mother. “And while she loved how passionate I was about dance, she always reminded me of my love for science.”

Lanyi began her first day of class on July 30 — her mother’s birthday.

“She is with me. I know it,” Lanyi said.

Compassionate service

Sam Kraus, Lanyi’s classmate, comes from a family of VCU alumni: his grandfather, Harry Kraus Sr., graduated from the Medical College of Virginia in 1955; his father, Harry Kraus Jr., graduated from VCU in 1986; and his brother Evan Kraus, graduated from the VCU School of Medicine in 2017.

Even with the strong family background in medicine, Kraus said he never felt pressure to become a doctor.

“My family wanted to make sure it was what I really wanted to do, but even when I explored other options I always felt a pull back to medicine,” Kraus said.

Sam Kraus, right, and his father, Harry Kraus Jr., a 1986 VCU graduate. (Photo by Tom Kojcsich, University Relations)
Sam Kraus, right, and his father, Harry Kraus Jr., a 1986 VCU graduate. (Photo by Tom Kojcsich, University Relations)

When Kraus was in the third grade, his family moved to Kenya, where his father was a medical missionary. After graduating high school in Kenya, Kraus went on to study public health at the University of Virginia. His passion for people was sparked in Kenya, a society where relationships are of most importance.

“In a lot of other cultures, relationships are currency. Meaning you are rewarded by the gratifying relationships you have with others. I’m excited to have those relationships with people in medicine,” he said.

‘It felt like I was coming home’

While Kraus didn’t feel pressure to become a doctor, he did feel pressure to attend VCU. “After three generations, my family loved their time at VCU and they still have such high regard for this school,” he said.

However, it wasn’t legacy that made him decide on VCU; it was a set of shared values. VCU’s commitment to people and service are the commonalities that stood out during the medical school interview and confirmed his decision to go to VCU, he said.

“There was a lot of focus on our capacity to empathize and be compassionate with others,” Kraus said. “When I interviewed, it just clicked: I was talking to people who were similar minded in service. It felt like I was coming home.”

Kraus said he is both honored and intimidated by the white coat ceremony.

“I’ve worked hard to get here but this white coat ceremony is a symbol of my dedication to the long journey ahead,” he said.

He believes there are two types of medical students, the first are those who say, “medical school is so difficult I feel like I’m drowning.” The second are those who say, “medical school is difficult and it’s exactly what I want to be doing.” As he completes his first week of classes, he hopes to have the latter perspective.

His long-term goal is to practice medicine in a developing country for part of his career because for Kraus, being a doctor — like being a missionary — is about service with compassion.  

“When people ask what kind of doctor I want to be, I say, ‘a good one,’” Kraus said. “And being a good doctor is just as much about compassion and service as it is about competence.”

Reciting the Hippocratic Oath at the white coat ceremony, he said, was a deeply moving moment.

“I became a little emotional and inspired saying the oath alongside so many other physicians in the room that have devoted their lives to medicine, including my father,” Kraus said.

Lanyi agreed.

“It made me recognize the weight of my decision to practice medicine, serve my community, and commit to the service of others,” she said. “I cannot wait for the many challenges and rewards the following years will bring.” 

Reciting the Hippocratic Oath at the white coat ceremony was a deeply moving moment, Kraus and Lanyi said. “I became a little emotional and inspired saying the oath alongside so many other physicians in the room that have devoted their lives to medicine, including my father,” Kraus said. (Photo by Tom Kojcsich, University Relations)
Reciting the Hippocratic Oath at the white coat ceremony was a deeply moving moment, Kraus and Lanyi said. “I became a little emotional and inspired saying the oath alongside so many other physicians in the room that have devoted their lives to medicine, including my father,” Kraus said. (Photo by Tom Kojcsich, University Relations)