Saturday, October 27, 2012

Looking back . . .

So it's been ridiculously long since my last post so it's hard to know where to begin. I suppose I should talk about what stood out to me this semester. I thought perhaps I would approach this task Seinfeld style and mention some random things and then tie them all together in an unlikely but real narrative. So here we go:

Rose between teeth, low notes, breaking bad news, good acting, empathy, relationship, humility, fragility, memory loss, creative writing. Ok, this list is getting longer than I planned.

On their own, theatre and medicine capture my imagination, albeit in different ways. Every so often , they intersect and then I truly feel like--need some cheesy song lyrics here--like . . . "I'm flying without wings" Thank you Ruben Studdard. That happened this semester when we assembled at the Michigan League to participate in dramatic enactments of breaking bad news to patients or their families. The scenarios involved a professional actor working with each group to be the "receiver" of bad news. I was "banned" from being the representative "doctor" from our group because our instructor did not feel that having TWO actors demonstrate the issue was ideal. I understood where she was coming from. I thought about offering to play the role of a medical student who was not an actor before medical school but that was getting a little much . . .

I was incredibly impressed with our assigned actor, Courtney. I know the focus was on the breaking bad news scenario, but I couldn't help but take in her acting as well. She was sincere, vulnerable and bold all at once, the elusive trifecta of every acting performance. We talked afterwards and it was powerful. I told her about my interest in the brain and she revealed how she used to work with traumatic brain injury patients and how her acting background enabled her to become whomever these patients needed her to be. It was an extraordinary conversation as I felt acting and medicine meet in the medium of compassion and empathy. Little did I know that a few weeks later I would be given a seemingly impossible assignment on a very similar theme:

For our "Giving Voice" Creative Writing Elective, we were asked to create a piece of writing based on an interview with a patient with memory loss. How do you talk to someone about their life when they have forgotten a lot of it? This task reminded me of one of my favorite courses to teach "Departures from Realism." This course dealt with a genre of theatre, Absurdist theatre, in which no clear narrative or character was apparent. These plays could be frustrating for an actor because nothing seemed to make sense, but that of course was not really unrealistic. Life can be absurd and fragmented and contradictory. And I think it was this openness to the unstructured that allowed me to collect my patient's story in bits and pieces and created a much more satisfying arc, emerging without prescription or heavy handed linear direction. We shared our stories with each other and I was impressed, yet again, by the sensitivity and artistic sensibility of those who chose to take this class with me. I cannot escape the connection; the patient, the actor and the doctor are united by the story, except that the story may be elusive or difficult. How then is it discovered? I found I had to assure my patient first that I really did care about her story. Two, that the hidden is worth looking for and to acknowledge that yes, we may not come up with much. In this case, I heard a story fit for any play-- cross country travel, family drama, an unexpected accident and personal reinvention.

Hmm, I didn't get to that rose between the teeth or those low notes . . . a story for another day?

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