OU theater students add unique spin to Medical Humanities and Clinical Bioethics course at OUWB
An image of students presenting in front of the class
Rachel Sarles (left) and Kennedy Vernengo perform in front of a Medical Humanities and Clinical Bioethics course at OUWB. They are from the Oakland University School of Music, Theatre, and Dance.

One of the important aspects of OUWB’s mission is to foster collaboration — and that value isn’t limited to collaboration within the medical community.

On March 30, three Oakland University School of Music, Theatre, and Dance (OUMTD) students paid a visit to Jason Wasserman’s, Ph.D., professor, Department of Foundational Medical Studies, course in Medical Humanities and Clinical Bioethics.

Wasserman said that he asked the theater students to perform with hopes of bringing to life the concepts discussed in his lectures.

“We can lecture about something, but to capture the feelings involved, the ways in which different people live it out – that experience is a little more difficult,” said Wasserman.

“One of the things that’s really cool about having the scenes played out in class is (that) it brings these things that we would otherwise talk about rather abstractly to life,” added Abram Brummett, Ph.D., assistant professor, Department of Foundational Medical Studies.

“You can feel the emotion of the actors and you can feel emotions you would have in their situation…it forces you to encounter the moral dilemma in a way that you don’t when you just read about it,” he added.

‘An art and science’
The class began with a brief lecture on the grief and stress processing that affects families after a diagnosis of a chronic illness before David Gram, MFA, assistant professor, OUMTD, led the students through an introduction to the musical the songs were selected from.

The musical, “Next to Normal,” follows a middle-class suburban family and the struggles they face as the mother, Diana, battles her bipolar disorder and its complications. It addresses topics such as medical ethics, grief, and suicide.

The students — Rachel Sarles, junior, Kennedy Vernengo, senior, and Phillip Christiansen, junior — performed two numbers.

The first, “Song of Forgetting,” details the events following when Diana, portrayed by Vernengo, returns home after electroconvulsive therapy and how her husband Dan, portrayed by Christiansen, and daughter, Natalie, portrayed by Sarles, react to her consequential memory loss.

The second number, “Maybe (Next to Normal),” depicts the interaction between Diana and Natalie as they realize that while normal may not be achievable, they will “get by.”

Following the performances, Wasserman, the medical students, and the performers engaged in a group discussion about what they saw in the performance that they could connect back to the lectures.

The class discussed how the family members responded differently based on their social upbringing and the expectations placed on them, how the complex dynamics led to emotions that may seem misplaced, and how a physician’s description of “stable” may not align with a patient’s expectations or emotions.

“The humanities represent exactly what we’ve been talking about with some of our concepts in recent weeks, which is the holistic experience of medicine, understanding the role of feelings, and what they signal to us about the events that are transpiring,” said Wasserman at the end of the class.

“That holistic approach to phenomena is what art is all about — that’s why they say medicine is an art and science,” he added.

A surprisingly likely pair
The advantage of OUWB being a part of a campus, said Wasserman, is that it allows for collaboration between many different departments, but this particular performance was far from the only collaboration that OUWB and OUMTD have engaged in.

Gram has been teaching a course in the medical school for the past three years called Coughing in the Theatre: Medical and Moral Ethics on the Dramatic Stage, which examines ethics through the reading of plays.

“Using the theater and its storytelling purposes can challenge the student doctors in wonderful ways because it’s messy…it doesn’t have clean and clear-cut answers,” said Gram.

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“Being able to engage with the stories and for the students to ask themselves, ‘What would I do in this situation? How would I confront (this) if I was faced with this difficult choice, if I found myself on this particular end of a moral ethical (dilemma)?’” he added.

“It’s a lot of fun, and the stories ask the students to engage on intellectual levels, on emotional levels.”

Several students said they found the performance to be beneficial to their understanding.

“I felt like the performance by the theater department made what we learned in class come to life,” said Claire Wang, M1. “It definitely added the emotional aspect to the lecture and integrated what we would actually see in real life.”

“At the end of the day, medicine is still a human experience,” said Sabrina Lee, M1. “Something beautiful about the theater department is that it emphasizes the emotions and the complexities of illness and experiencing like a human.”

The collaboration did not only benefit the medical students — the student performers also stepped away with new knowledge from the exchange.

“It’s super important for areas of study to overlap, because they’re all interconnected in some way, shape, or form,” said Sarles.

“Analyzing the different levels of the doctor-patient relationship, how families go through things, and the science behind relationships is so important for our work because it really helps us find our way into the story based on the circumstances they’re given,” she added.

“I feel like these are two worlds that don’t ever really coincide,” said Vernengo. “It’s cool to be here and share our work with them. My hope would be that it would make a world full of more empathetic doctors, doctors that see people for people and not just numbers on a chart…I hope they enjoyed it.”

Gram said that he enjoys cultivating the relationship between the departments and hopes they can “learn from each other.”

“Stories help us understand humanity,” said Gram. “And we continue to pass stories down because it helps us make sense of the world, or at least helps challenge us to think about the world in a different way.”

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