Working With a Live Audience Can Be a Real Treat for Med Student-Actors

After a tough day of cutting up cadavers and squinting at textbooks, the medical student was ready to relax. So, he shed his green lab coat, went to a small classroom nearby and, on cue, began shouting at the woman next to him.

In an instant, J. Michael Nelson had been transformed into an actor. Away with all thoughts of medicines, theories and agonizingly thorough research. The small, drab room in which he practiced had become a stage.

Nelson is one of 11 students at the College of Osteopathic Medicine of the Pacific in Pomona who have taken up acting to reliEve the tedium of their studies. He will perform the role of Roy Hubley, a frustrated father whose daughter refuses to come out of the bathroom on her wedding day, in Neil Simon's "Plaza Suite," which opens April 1 at the campus amphitheater.

Before last August, when the actors staged their first production, such an endeavor was unheard of at the school, a necessarily sterile environment where, students say, the scientific regimen leaves little time for the creative spirit.

"It's a release of emotion and stress," Nelson said.

The students claim that theirs is the first theater group to be formed in any of the nation's 15 osteopathic colleges, which blend conventional medicine with manipulative therapy and emphasize the relationship of muscles and the skeletal system to overall health.

The two disciplines--acting and doctoring--require a great deal of memorization, and Nelson admitted there is an occasional embarrassing overlap.

"Sometimes, in the middle of practicing your lines, the only thing that comes to you is the spinal-thalamic tract," said Nelson, a 29-year-old first-year student. "Sometimes the anatomical terms crowd your lines out."

Nevertheless, the students are committed to their art, not just as a form of entertainment but as a much-needed complement to academic diligence.

Paul Steier, 37, director of the "Plaza Suite" production and a second-year student at the college, said medical schools are often shy of artistic endeavor, producing doctors who may be competent mechanics of the human body but whose human warmth may have been chilled by years of rigorous scientific training. "The medical school process tends to be a restrictive one, just because of the volume of scientific data you're going through," Steier said. "This reminds us we are human."

Steier and Mike Fitting, a 27-year-old second-year student, decided to form the group last year after reading studies showing doctors were growing increasingly insensitive to patients' emotional needs. As doctors continue to specialize, Fitting said, their technical knowledge increases but their ability to calm patients and help them understand their illnesses--what used to be called "bedside manner"--appears to decline.

Steier and Fitting decided that some study of the humanities was necessary, and their theater group Sanus--the Latin root word both for sanity and sanitation--was born. Both Steier, who was involved in theater for 10 years and received a bachelor's degree in motion picture production at UCLA before taking up osteopathic medicine, and Fitting, who has also studied drama, consider Sanus a natural extension of their previous stage experience.

The group's motto, "Health Through Art," refers as much to the emotional health of the aspiring physician as it does to that of his future patients, the students said.

"If you don't do this now--make a life style for yourself that allows you the time to be creative--then as a physician you'll probably be a very sterile person," Fitting said. "You'll probably have a houseboat and a condo, but you'll never see them."

Getting the theater group started required money, and that meant making appeals for donations. Fitting said raising funds was tough work in the beginning. "I have callouses on my knees," he said, laughing, as he told of making time-consuming rounds of the faculty and businessmen in the community seeking donations.

A total of $6,000 was needed for Sanus' first effort, a production of a play entitled "The Shadow Box" about terminally ill patients in their last days at a hospital. That production earned the group respect and credibility, Fitting said, and it has been easier to raise the $3,000 needed for their current production.

Simon's "Plaza Suite," a comedy in three acts, has nothing directly to do with medicine. But it does have a great deal to do with humanity, the students say. Each of the characters experiences some sort of revelation about his own emotional needs and the needs of others.

Such sentiments are often lost on medical students, said Dr. Maureen Shiflett, a cast member who teaches at the college.

"It's not easy going to medical school," Shiflett said. "The students think they don't have time for this. What Sanus has done is make students realize they need to take the time."

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