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May 27, 2016

Operating Theater: When doctors do drama

“The Empathy Project” offers turns med students into playwrights

These future doctors aren’t playwrights, but they’ll play them on Tuesday.

That’s when the students of Thomas Jefferson University’s Sidney Kimmel Medical College team up with Lantern Theater Company to present “The Truth Beneath: Five Stories You Haven’t Heard From Your Provider.”

The evening of short plays is the culmination of the second year of “The Empathy Project,” a partnership between Jefferson and Lantern that's intended to foster empathy and creativity among healthcare students and professionals.

Lantern artistic director Charles McMahon refers to the project as “an emotional flight simulator.” By writing and enacting different scenarios in the classroom, he says, medical students who are used to facing incredible stress can “flex their emotional and interpersonal muscles in ways that sharpen them.”

The project was the brainchild of pulmonologist Salvatore Mangione, M.D., director of physical diagnosis-clinical skills at Kimmel Medical College as well as a Lantern subscriber. Mangione approached McMahon with the idea of exploring ways to increase empathy in medical students, both for their patients and their colleagues.

“It’s an occupation with a high burnout and suicide rate,” says M. Craig Getting, education director at Lantern Theater Co.

“It’s an occupation with a high burnout and suicide rate,” says M. Craig Getting, the Lantern’s education director. “A lot of that is dealing with the stresses of working in an environment where failure is not an option. We tried to provide opportunities for students to fail at something. The process of rehearsing a play requires a lot of tiny, really fruitful failures.”

The results of the 15-week course will be on stage Tuesday, with short plays dealing with subjects from dealing with a family friend’s personal illness to feeling a disconnect with old friends because of the insular environment of medical school. Surprisingly, not all of the plays deal directly with medical experiences; some offer a wider perspective on family life, cultural background, and other subjects.

The latter category includes a piece written by first-year med student Anitha Ahmed, a native of Princeton who confronts the issues faced by the children of immigrants as well as navigating a first relationship. Ahmed, who sought to reconnect with her earlier efforts in fiction writing through the program, says “the experience has given me a lot of new perspective with regards to empathizing with my patients or feeling for my fellow students. It also helped fill this creative writing gap in my life.”

Unlike the Lantern’s other educational initiatives, the Empathy Project is not meant to foster new writers. Unexpectedly, however, McMahon says the plays created in the first year were “surprisingly pretty good. Really well-educated, thoughtful, talented people have difficulty writing plays, so we were stunned when we saw how engaging and creative and interesting these stories turned out to be.”

The Truth Beneath: Five Stories You Haven’t Heard From Your Provider

Tuesday, May 31
Herbut Auditorium, College Building
1025 Walnut St.
6 p.m. | free (RSVP encouraged)