My job title is Medical Actor, which means I play sick. I get paid by the hour. Medical students guess my maladies. I’m called a Standardized Patient, which means I act toward the norms of my disorders. I’m standardized-lingo SP for short. I’m fluent in the symptoms of preeclampsia and asthma and appendicitis. I play a mom whose baby has blue lips.
Medical acting works like this: you get a script and a paper gown. You get $13.50 an hour. Our scripts are ten to twelve pages long. They outline what’s wrong with us—not just what hurts but how to express it. They tell us how much to give away, and when. We are supposed to unfurl the answers according to specific protocols. The scripts dig deep into our fictive lives: the ages of our children and the diseases of our parents, the names of our husbands’ real-estate and graphic-design firms, the amount of weight we’ve lost in the past year, the amount of alcohol we drink each week.
This is the beginning of an excellent essay by Leslie Jamison in the Believer called “The Empathy Exams,” which is also the title essay of her forthcoming book. I stayed way too late in a coffee shop reading this last night then walked home bleary and starving and totally blown away.
Anyway, the fact that ‘medical actor’ is a job you can get paid for is not the most fascinating part of the essay but interesting nonetheless! It reminds me of the time in high school when my friend and I were chosen from our drama class to go volunteer with the Leon County SWAT team to help them train for hostage negotiations. In retrospect having two 16-year-olds reenact hostage situations was probably not a great idea, though we did have a lot/too much fun with it and they did only have to pay us in pizza.