Nina Stoyan-Rosenzweig is the Director of the Medical Humanities program and a COM adjunct professor. She also is the Department of History Archivist and Education Coordinator for the Health Science Center. Here she reviews a play performed by the medical student acting troupe White Coat Company.
Since its creation in 2005, the medical student theater group the White Coat Company has been a very active and popular student-run organization. The group performs small plays and skits every year and mounts a major production for children — presented on the pediatrics floors at Shands hospital, in public libraries or in local schools.
The group’s most recent performance, held Friday, April 4, at the Heath Professions, Nursing and Pharmacy building auditorium, allowed the medical students to once again tap into social issues associated with illness and healing. Their moving production of “Patient A,” written by Less Blessing, explored the issues of stigma and personal responsibility surrounding the early days of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the United States.
The nature of the illness and the population in which it first appeared contributed to disturbing cases of discrimination and a delayed response to protect the nation’s blood supply, which resulted in infection through transfusion for “innocent” sufferers. The case of Patient A introduced another type of innocent sufferer. Kimberly Bergalis (1968-1991), a young woman who contracted HIV after visiting her infected dentist, emphasized the question of personal responsibility for sickness — of innocence versus guilt. During her last years, Kimberly spoke out to describe her suffering, and her family commissioned the play “Patient A” to help tell her story. The playwright addresses these issues in the play, writing himself into it as a character to explore the dangers of associating disease with stigma and searching for cures that do not address wider social problems within society.
“Sometimes what concerns me most is that a cure will be found for HIV, for all the deadly viruses we’ve begun to encounter.” Blessing writes. “I suppose we’ll declare victory again, ignoring as always the larger disease: the cowardice, the viciousness with which we’ve behaved. It’s the epidemic that’s been with us from the beginning.”
The fourth-year medical students who founded the White Coat Company chose to perform this complex, dialogue-driven play as their closing production, and they did a fantastic job. It was a gripping performance that held the audience from beginning to end. White Coat Company founder Rebecca Gomez played the part of playwright Blessing, while co-founders Bonni Stahl played the part of Kim, and Meera Iyengar was Matthew, the AIDS patient who represented a composite of thousands of sufferers.
The White Coat Company provides a unique stage that affords future physicians the opportunity to express themselves creatively. The medical student/actors represent an important trend in medical and public health education. Increasingly it is found that the theater serves to convey educational messages about public health practices as well as helps medical students develop empathy by enabling them to put themselves in another’s shoes. This is another way in which the students at the COM find themselves at the forefront of medical education through an artful examination of attitudes and beliefs among the general public.