Inside What It Means To Act Like a Doctor

By Susan Fadem
In Culture

Six medical students, all completing their often grueling first year of study, face each other across two pushed-together, narrow tables. With book bags, a red sack and assorted totes at their feet, they sit semi-relaxed in vinyl-and-tubular metal chairs, the kind that would look at home in a doctor’s waiting room.

Hamming it up after class, the Rev. Gary Seibert, at left, and Dr. Ken Haller. Photo by Susan Fadem

Hamming it up after class, the Rev. Gary Seibert, at left, and Dr. Ken Haller. Photo by Susan Fadem

That’s the point of their class. With two avuncular instructors—a doctor who sings and acts professionally, and a priest who directed theater and remains best friends with Tony and Emmy award-winning actress Cherry Jones—the students have enrolled in “Acting Like a Doctor,” a three-year-old course.

No props, not even a cadaver. No textbooks with a bazillion facts. Instead, in an elective class with no grades given, four female and two male students at St. Louis University School of Medicine focus on what it means to be a doctor, from the inside out.

Time is short today for their fifth of six sessions, spread across 14 weeks and with each class three hours long. Therefore, instructors Dr. Ken Haller and the Rev. Gary Seibert,, S.J., dispense with the usual warm-ups. Typically, the exercises include reciting tongue twisters and dancing the shimmy and hula. Beyond silliness, Seibert says, one purpose is to remember that you have a body, as well as a voice, mind and emotions.

Retired from the communications faculty at St. Louis University, where he taught scriptwriting, he was invited to co-teach by Haller, an associate professor of pediatrics at St. Louis U’s med school and Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital. Haller is likewise known for his sell-out solo cabaret evenings, mostly at local clubs.

Both men bring something of their totality to students. “You come into medical school with empathy and compassion,” Seibert says. “We want you to leave with them, too.”

As if tossing a one-liner, Haller offers a writing prompt. He asks students, referred to as “Dr.,” to complete the sentence: “The fictional character I admire most is … .”

Responses are shared. Hermione Granger, of “Harry Potter” fame, receives praise for her bookishness and because “she couldn’t figure out how to control her hair.” Peter Parker, the nerd-turned-powerhouse Spider Man, gets kudos, too.

Students next receive handouts of three short two-character plays. Most have no acting experience. Those sitting opposite each other are paired. None is familiar with the material. The playwrights’ barebones character descriptions are read aloud: name, age and, if relevant, occupation.

Students stay seated for their “cold,” unrehearsed reads. And then, something beyond the page happens. Whether playing a daughter beseeched by Mom to direct a stage rehearsal for the latter’s funeral or a father standing lakeside with the girlfriend of his deceased son, students experience what it means to be “in the moment.”

Snap judgments may be invalid. Narratives unfold. And bringing the doctor/patient relationship into the equation, patients need to know they’re listened to and heard.

What, then, is acting like a doctor? Perhaps it’s never leaving your humanity at the door.

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