Some of my friends and family members think that I have become a new convert to the dark side. This disturbing assessment is attributed to my fascination with the plethora of the newest iPhone health devices. I plead inter spem et metum or take up my daily residence somewhere between hope and fear on this subject. That is, I am hopeful about some of the latest technology that helps us monitor the heart, while I am fearful that our focus on the technology might contribute more to the dehumanization of health.
As a recovering heart patient and educator, I want to take the high road here and share my recent discovery of Professor Todd Savitt’s edited book, Medical Readers’ Theater: A Guide and Scripts, published by the University of Iowa Press.
The paperback comprised of fourteen theater scripts is adapted from short stories about physicians and patients. All of the stories (scripts) address ethical and social issues in medical care and the conflicting aspects of aging and chronic disease. While the text or scripts may be intended for medical students, I urge my colleagues in the performing arts, and humanities to assign the textbook. For that matter, here at Coastal Carolina University, where I currently teach, it may be a welcome addition for our expanding Health Promotion department. What better way to offer some instruction in empathy.
The Readers’ Theater Program began in 1988 with a grant from the North Carolina Humanities Council. Three medical schools in the state sent students to perform the stories before community groups. The program continues at East Carolina University, and thanks to this book, it can be inaugurated at other institutions.
Savitt, a PhD in the Department of Bioethics and Interdisciplinary Studies at Brody School of Medicine, gives more than thoughtful instructions on how the material is to be performed—including brief stage directions and suggestions on what performers should wear—and he offers tips on finding audiences by reaching out to existing organizations and community groups.
The job of the discussion leader is carefully detailed because the purpose of the performance is not to provide entertainment, but to elicit an exchange of ideas. The program, he explains, “is to provide a forum where citizens can consider and examine their own and others’ views on issues of common concern in the medical world” (p. xix). It is fully anticipated that attendees will be “sharing personal and sometimes painful experiences and debating points of contention” (p. xix).
The reader is not only an essential for medical students but for all students engaged in the healthcare field. I encourage all medical schools to take the lead and dedicate one afternoon to a Medical Readers Theater performance with faculty, students and patients all participating.
The stories found in the compelling anthology include a range of themes about physicians and patients, like William Carlos Williams’s “The Girl With a Pimply Face,” a story that I have previously taught in one of my past Literature and Medicine classes. An excellent summary of this story is found on this blog, Medical Visions in Literature Discussion.
For my purposes, I intend to rally some academic departments to conduct a Medical Readers performance this fall. Anything that teachers can do to bring empathy into the classroom has my vote and full participation. After all, empathy is not just about hugs and pats on the back for a job well done. It’s about developing a skill that can make young people more mindful and productive at home, on campus and eventually in the workplace since we need more cooperation and compassion each and every day.
Send me your story.