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Week of April 11, 2011

Staff Spotlight

Medical assistant made transition 
from factory to clinic

For 20 years, Gerald White worked at an Adrian plant that produced cooling systems for the auto industry. “I ran a press that made aluminum tubing for radiators,” he says.

But when he heard the factory was likely to move operations to Mexico, the married father didn’t wait for the axe to fall.

Photo by Scott Soderberg, U-M Photo Services.

White began medical assistant training at the National Institute of Technology (now Everest Institute) in Dearborn, earned his certificate then performed an externship in 2004 at the U-M Health System. Soon after, he was hired as a medical assistant in the Division of Metabolism, Endocrinology & Diabetes (MEND) clinic.

White’s coworkers say they appreciate his devotedness to the job, as he volunteers to represent the clinic at health fairs. But it’s his dedication to patients — by learning Mandarin to help communicate with Asian patients — that impresses them the most.

“What I noticed is a lot of our patients who come in need interpreters. I needed to communicate with them,” White says. Due to its reputation as a top diabetes research facility, the MEND clinic draws patients from around the Midwest representing many nationalities.

When he saw there were a number of Chinese patients who did not speak English, White found a three-CD tutorial for Mandarin — the language spoken by nearly 90 percent of Chinese people — and learned enough to converse with non-English-speaking Chinese during intake sessions.

“First I learned to pronounce each of the words I needed to know, plus a couple of doctors also knew Mandarin and were helpful to correct me in ways so I didn’t insult our patients,” White says. “You can have three different tones for the same word.”

When he doesn’t get a word quite right, “Usually you get a chuckle out of (patients) because they know you’ve messed up. But they know you’re trying very hard and they appreciate what you’re trying to do,” he says.

A key part of his job involves taking information before patients see a doctor. This includes measuring height and weight, taking blood pressure, testing for blood sugar and a urinalysis. White also assists physicians performing thyroid biopsies and prepares slides for examination under the microscope.

“Through the Internet the slides can be seen by the pathology department at the University Hospital. It’s pretty cool technology,” he says.

White grew up in Ypsilanti and Lincoln Park, where he graduated from Lincoln Park High School and then attended Michigan Christian College, before taking the job with the auto supplier.

He served several years as a scoutmaster for Boy Scout Troop 659 in Adrian. “We had a good track record of turning out several Eagle Scouts,” he says, adding that many of the boys who had the scouting experience benefited as men.

To be a successful scoutmaster, White says, “You teach the boys how to run the troop themselves and you’re there to be a guide, so they can become leaders as men. They learn how to handle themselves and that’s exactly what we’re trying to teach.”

A deacon at the Dexter Church of Christ, White is married to Bonnie and has a grown son, Brandon.

White says he’ll continue to keep working on his Mandarin. “I have enough lessons to last me for a while,” he says.

The weekly Spotlight features staff members at the university. To nominate a candidate, please contact the Record staff at



Gerald White, medical assistant, Division of Metabolism, Endocrinology & Diabetes clinic, on mispronouncing a word in Mandarin during patient intake: “Usually you get a chuckle out of them because they know you’ve messed up. But they know you’re trying very hard and they appreciate what you’re trying to do.”


“Pyongyang,” multimedia installation by artist David Chung, 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday through Friday, Institute for the Humanities.

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