Dose of Acting Keeps Medical Students Sane

Times Staff Writer

After a tough day of cutting up cadavers and squinting at textbooks, the medical student was ready to relax. 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 medicine, theory and agonizingly thorough research. The small, drab room in which he studied had become a stage.

Nelson is one of 11 students at the College of Osteopathic Medicine of the Pacific 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.

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

Paul Steier, 37, director of the "Plaza Suite" production and a second-year student at the Pomona college, and Mike Fitting, 27, a second-year student, decided to form the group last year after reading studies that showed that 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 appears to decline.

Steier and Fitting decided that some study of the humanities was necessary. Their theater group, Sanus, from the Latin word for sanity, was born.

The group's motto, "Health Through Art," refers as much to the emotional health of the aspiring physicians as it does to that of their 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. He told of making time-consuming appeals to faculty members and businessmen.

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

"It's not easy going to medical school," said Dr. Maureen Shiflett, a cast member who teaches at the college. "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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