Friday, 7 October 2011

Simulating for real.

Yesterday I spent the day being a depressed woman.  I was working as a simulated patient for one of the medical education institutions.  By the end of the day, I was exhausted and just didn't have it in me to post anything.

The scenario was intense - chronic, debilitating disease, two previous failed suicide attempts, a father who had committed suicide and a current plan to be successful in her third suicide attempt.

What a way to spend a day.  My wardrobe brief was to not care about my appearance or hygiene. I literally got out of bed, put on the first clothes I could find and went to work.  (After a hearty breakfast - you can't do this kind of work on an empty stomach.)

I really enjoy simulated patient work.  It's hard work and the pay is poor, but I choose to do it because I think it's also very important work.  The more realistic I can make the encounters, the more challenging and beneficial it is for the students.  I also learn a lot about different things.  Often they are things I don't want to know.  For example, I have more knowledge about the risks of childbirth than anyone could ever want or need.  I also know a lot about what happens when a woman has had three miscarriages in a row.  These scenarios all highlight how critical skillful and sensitive communication is to a patient's well being.  Yesterday I was shocked to discover that people with a firm suicide plan will talk about it in detail if asked the right questions.

In playing my role yesterday, I was often surprised at what made me angry but also what connected with me on a human level.  Simple genuine comments about my children's love for their mother had an incredible effect. It was like turning on a tap.  As an actor doing this work surrounded by science people, I will inevitably be asked about crying.  How do I make myself cry?  And how do I do it again and again and again for eight hours? This is an impossible question to answer, especially in this work which is unscripted and improvised on the spot.  It's part of the mysterious transformations that an actor goes through. I know that it's got to do with being really present and my breath helps me a lot. I also think that people who are actors have ready access to a range of emotions that most people don't.  In ordinary life, the extremes are often kept locked away and "under control". That's why it can be such a buzz to go through these kinds of emotions, even if it means crying on queue every 10 minutes for eight hours.

I also contemplated the impact of this scenario on the students.  Most of them were deeply affected by their conversation with my character.  They all started breathing again once the final bell went and they knew the conversation was over.  They all thanked me and I wished them luck for their exams.

One girl in particular showed an amazing level of empathy. I could feel her humanity reaching out to me as we talked. At the end she asked me whether any of what I'd said was true.  I assured her it wasn't my story and that I was playing a role. And that I was fine! Then she hesitated before asking me if she could give me a hug.

I said yes.

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