PALMETTO -- Almost 260 men and women officially earned the title of doctor Sunday at the solemn graduation ceremony of the Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine Bradenton campus.
Dressed in royal blue caps and gowns, 152 College of Medicine graduates became doctors of osteopathic medicine. Wearing olive green robes and caps, 105 graduated from the School of Pharmacy at the campus on Lakewood Ranch Boulevard.
The Rev. Monsignor David Rubino offered a prayer during the ceremony at the Bradenton Area Convention Center asking God to help guide the new doctors to create "a healing partnership with their patients."
This sentiment was the reason several graduates said they chose to pursue medical careers.
Spencer Haslam, a 2006 graduate of Manatee High School, said he was motivated to earn his doctorate in pharmacology after working as a technician during high school at the Publix pharmacy.
"I liked it," said Haslam, who graduated from State College of Florida before enrolling in LECOM. "I was studying science (at SCF) and then thought about getting into medicine because I want to help people."
Haslam enlisted in the U.S. Air Force and will be leaving for duty in August.
"I wanted to serve my country," he said. "It's very important to me."
Also, the financial aid he receives for his education and the chance to travel to "pretty nice places" helped him decide to join the service.
In an emotional moment before degrees were awarded, members of the U.S. Armed Services in the audience and class of 2013 were recognized. A song from each service branch was played as military scenes were projected on the screen.
Members of the service was asked to stand and the audience showed its appreciation with rousing applause.
Service to people also was the reason Joel Garrison, a 2005 graduate of Lakewood Ranch High School, decided to become a doctor.
"I like the idea that I'll be helping others," said Garrison, who earned a degree in genetics at the University of Georgia before enrolling at LECOM.
He said he found the LECOM coursework challenging, but he picked the school because of its problem-based learning curriculum.
Garrison said he also wanted to be an osteopathic doctor, "because of its holistic view of healing."
According to the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine website, osteopathic medicine is "a system of medical care that would promote the body's innate ability to heal itself."
Osteopathic physicians can prescribe drugs, perform surgeries and become medical specialists.
An estimated 2,500 people traveled from around the United States and several foreign countries to watch family members or friends become doctors.
LECOM, founded in December 1992 in Erie, Pa., opened its Bradenton campus in September 2004.
Tony Martinez came from Miami to attend LECOM and received in doctor of medicine degree Sunday. With his mother and sister afflicted with chronic illnesses, Martinez said he recognized the need for doctors.
"There's so many people in their position," he said. "Their struggles opened my eyes to that need."
Martinez plans on going to Florida State University in Tallahassee to study internal medicine.
There was no commencement speakers but LECOM CEO and President Dr. John Ferretti presented a Distinguished Citizen Award to Al Ruechel, long-time news anchor at BayNews9.
Ruechel, whose son, Dr. Chad Ruechel, graduated from LECOM's first class in 2008, has volunteered several years as master of ceremonies at the college's Student Scholarship Gala.
"As a parent of a former medical school student, Al Ruechel knows well the needs of the students enrolled in medical training and the rigors of a medical school education," Ferretti said before presenting the award.
Ruechel said he was "flabbergasted" over the award.
"Serving as emcee is a lot of fun," he said. "I have a blast doing it."
The gala is more than just raising the millions of dollars for scholarships, Ruechel said.
"It's also knowing there are a group of people who believe in you and want you to succeed," he said.