Yes, an audience of 20 something medical students is light years from an audience of engaged seniors
And the fun is in getting to play to both! (Above, Central Park March 2019)
That was biggest discovery from the last 10 days performing My Stroke of Luck on the East Coast, performing show first at George Washington University School of Medicine then at Princeton Senior Resource Center (with the NYC obligatory drive by).
Performing is always a discovery- you find new truth in a line, have an epiphany about a moment, find a deeper emotional resonance, or the audience responds in a totally unexpected way, and you roll with it, discover and learn from it!
Truly, the improvisers, “Yes, And….” Take each new reaction, each unexpected response, play with it, add to it. That is why live theater is so electric and captivating. Performers are pushed, yet bound to stay in the moment!!!
And that is why no two performances are alike. And why some who have seen my show 2 or more times say they will readily return. (Ignoring the inevitable challenges like sound cues that don’t come, or come way early skipping pages of text, or the front row audience member whose cell phone rings, not once but on two separate occasions!!)
And, no, March is not a choice time to visit the East Coast! To this Californian, it was bitingly cold, despite my tri-climate Patagonia down filled, waterproof coat, hat, scarf, gloves and boots. As I trudged down Broadway, frozen, gloved fingers shoved into my pockets, I remembered that as a child in NYC, my scarf was woolen, and wrapped around my face so that I breathed through it, and I wore leggings, ear muffs, gloves AND a muff. (Think Dr. Zhivago!) . For you native Californians, muffs:
But my East Coast friends remarked that the weather was seasonably fine! Could have been way worse! No snowfall, sleet, rain nor hail! Could have been here last week. And I know they are oh, so right! Part of why I now live in CA!
Interestingly, both performances were at the request of former classmates. Lucky me! (Not going into privilege here, rather, let’s think of it as a positive leaning in, sisterhood, women supporting women.) Dr. Julia Frank, a Yale Medical School classmate, invited me to GW after seeing show Off Broadway. March was the optimal timing for the first year medical students curriculum. Barbara Prince, a Dalton classmate who heard about the show, invited me to Princeton, so batched the two dates. And you may remember, my Drexel University performance was at the invitation of Dr. Paula Marantz Cohen, wife of my Yale classmate, Alan Penziner. Women supporting women. YES!
So, back to the performances.
The (young to me) medical students laughed at all the interactions between the boys, me and the boys. On the moments of parenting, silence. Moments of profound end of life choices, silence. And no gasps or shocked faces in response to my bad choices. The Princeton Senior Resource Center audience, which included many grandparents, read parents who survived raising teens and are now watching their own children do the same, laughed heartily at all the parenting issues, were silent at the interaction of the boys, gasped at my bad choices and seemed more engaged on the issues of end of life choices.
Q and A / Talkback sessions after both shows underscored the differences. Some of the questions were the same:
“Why didn’t you have more support from the medical system?” “How could they send you home with no help? No nurse? No aide?”
“What gave you the strength to recover?”
“Would you say you are back to who you were before? Do you have any residual deficits?”
But the students at George Washington, future doctors also asked:
“How can we maintain sensitivity to patients with our training?”
“Do you think medical education needs to prepare you better? Do you think medical education today does a better job?”
“How can we be open hearted? Empathetic?"
“What do you think we as medical students should take away?”
“Can you suggest ways we can stay more human?”
I do not ever remember any of those questions finding air space during my medical training.
But their questions reminded me of my training years, and a long buried memory resurfaced.
During my internship, on medical rotation at San Francisco General Hospital, I got what could have been my 6th or 18th admission of the day at about 2 AM. I walked into the single room where a sixty something man lay on the bed.
“Hello, I’m Dr. Barnes, I’ll be your doctor.”
His face clouded with suspicion. “Are you a real doctor? Or something else?”
Without missing a beat, I said, “I’m the realest doctor you’re going to see at 2 AM.”
Now my Uncle Fred, an ophthalmologist, loved to tell that story, which I must have related to him. To this day, I see him doubled over in laughter recounting it, probably the only reason I have any memory of it. To put it in some context, I was quite familiar with patients treating me with suspicion or even downright hostility . My class at Yale Medical School was the first to have significant numbers of women AND people of color. So throughout the clinical years, patients assumed I was (in order of frequency) 1) the orderly, a job at Yale most often held by people of color (in addition to janitor) 2) the ward clerk, a job at Yale often held by attractive, young women of color, or 3) the blood drawer (phlebotomist) or lab worker 4) the social worker 5) any other non medical professional DESPITE my white coat and even if I entered the room with a professor and group of other people readily acknowledged as medical students. And that list is a rather sanitized version of the experience; most often I would walk in (to do a history and physical), introduce myself, and be offered a malodorous, brimming bed pan to empty.
And often, once I made my role clear, I was greeted with, “I don’t want some affirmative action doctor.” “Not everyone who goes to Yale Medical School is good enough to be a resident here, right?” “So where are you from, India?” “I don’t want some woman touching me.” That last, usually from middle aged women.
So by the time I graduated, matched at my first choice program and actually began working as a doctor, I was defensive and reactive, with a fair sized chip on my shoulder. Add to that sleep deprivation and overwork, and I was not a person brimming with humanity.
But that Diane is eons gone.
So it was a bit of a shock when that memory flooded me at the talkback. I was bathed in a sense of shame and horror, as well as an understanding of how that occurred.
So I shared it. The students roared. But it opened the door; addressing how inappropriate a response that was touched on the issues of how training (and stress) can change us, and the need to maintain (or reclaim) empathy and humanity. I shared my thought and the students listened.
To their questions, even now, I certainly don’t have all the answers. But I do know asking the questions is the starting point. Humanity in the practice of medicine is so key, and the key to humanity in all interactions is finding it and keeping it alive in oneself. And George Washington has that commitment; Linda Raphael, PhD, Director of Medical Humanities at George Washington helped facilitate bringing my show to those physicians of tomorrow, and Dr. Frank secured funding through The Arnold P. Gold Foundation, whose mission statement is “Keeping Medicine Human”. So as our physicians retire, we can anticipate their ranks will be replenished with physicians whose training has included humanity.
At Princeton I was asked:
“How can we prepare ourselves so we don’t find ourselves alone in your situation?”
“You had a lot of resources for recovery. How do you know what you need? Who do you turn to? How do we go about finding help?”
“What’s the best way to help someone who is depressed after a stroke ?”
I was struck that at a place that is a community for seniors, many of the questions were about creating and maintaining community, not just for themselves, but for other families who may be marooned in solitude for whatever reasons. They wanted to learn about stroke, to be resources for loved ones who have had or might have strokes, and to control their risk factors. And they reassured me that some of the things I associate with my stroke, they associate with age!
So, in addition to the supreme pleasure of performing, I also left laden with the gifts the audiences shared. And bragging rights from performing in my largest venue to date, the 350 seat Betts Theater at GW.
And the cherry on top? Fantastic new photographs of show from Barry Sagotsky of Princeton! (New Production Images)
With thanks to all!
And my show is coming back to The Marsh, this time in Berkeley! Tell your friends, family and tell your doctor!
April 29th Benefit for Stroke Awareness Oregon, Tower Theater
May 2-June 1: The Marsh Berkeley 2120 Allston Way (off Shattuck, 1 block from Addison Downtown Berkeley BART station) Thursdays at 8 PM, Saturdays at 5 PM