I learned how to be a good doctor in theater school

It’s hard for me to believe that a few years ago, I completely turned my back on an acting career I had spent almost two decades building and instead decided to forge into an unknown world of medicine. Even now, with nearly seven years of experience in the medical field and currently in my fourth year of medical school, I sometimes feel lost for an identity.

At the time of my decision, I found myself increasingly unhappy about the lack of control I felt over my own life, which in itself is the nature of the artistic business. I found myself disgustingly self-obsessed in a career path that forced me to sell myself as a product as I teetered along a tightrope of uncertainty as to where my next paycheck or job would come from. And as the world became more chaotic, I developed a more profound interest in the well-being of a humanity that is plagued with inequality, misunderstanding, and hate. I found it harder to justify my commitment to a field where I was unable to see a way to marry my passion with making a significant contribution to humankind.

While art is a necessity, it has its limitations. We are taught as artists that art serves a reflection of the human condition and forces viewers to come to terms with the truth. It begs uncomfortable questions, demands answers of societal problems and gives a voice to those without one. But it is limited in its funding, in catering to audiences that don’t want to be shown the uncomfortable truth and in its saturated market of too many vying for a shrinking field. I can only describe my decision to leave the theater as a burning obsession to somehow make a practical difference in the world and to serve the voiceless in a direct manner outside of a safe and sterile space with polite applause at the end. And so I went into medicine.

But I don’t truly think of myself as a scientist, and I don’t think I ever will. I don’t really love science, though I greatly respect it and find the human body miraculous. In fact, as I get further along in a medical career with all the drama of a hospital playing out in front of me, I feel a sense of panic as time and experience distance me from my first identity. I catch myself missing theater terribly and longing for that feeling of the first read when I could taste the character’s words in my mouth for the first time and when I could don their essence like a coat and enter a new world. I miss the feeling of discovery when I figured out a motive or a thought that must precede a line or some part of a backstory that changes everything. I miss the feeling of opening night when I got the joy of experiencing an audience’s energy and the feeling of closing night when I put to bed my character, tucking them sweetly in before they evaporated, because that’s the thing about theater, it’s transient.

And that’s the thing about my new work — it’s not. I did chest compressions on a woman last night with metastatic cancer. As I felt her ribs crack beneath my hands and as I looked at her eyes rolled up into her head, I thought “this is real.” It was almost as if I needed that reminder. It’s as if I occasionally slip into a strange go-between of my two identities and need to remember which side I am existing on.

However, I think what has become clearer to me more than ever is the necessity of the the arts and how much I still need them in my new profession. I need to see beauty in this messy, dirty, frustrating world that often seems so dark to me. Artists develop amazing skills to empathize with a human being’s deepest fears and hopes, and I still need that to better care for people. I need an artist’s exquisite sensitivity and generosity of heart and then bring that to my patients. As an artist, I was trained to be comfortable with the vulnerability of emotional expression and handle it in all of its force onstage. I would be a better doctor if I could look directly into my patient’s eyes and unflinchingly accept their deepest truth. I need to remember that to listen is the best way to honor another person’s humanity.

I spent my life cultivating these skills, but I so often forget them or am afraid to use them in my medical career, in a situation that is riskier and less safe, in an experience that does not end when the spotlight dims and the curtain goes down, but rather continues on forever as patients are discharged and I move to the next one.

It is strange to think that even now, many years into medical training, that which will make me the best physician I can be I learned in theater school. And perhaps I will one day learn to masterfully blend both roles, to close the boundary between the stage and the patient bed, to realize I have the ability to offer more than medical knowledge. I need to remember that work in art does not stop when I am not onstage, but rather I can choose to be an artist every day and embrace those abilities to augment my new role.

Lauren Klingman is a medical student.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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