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 set for my disorders. I'm standardized-lingo SP for short.
Medical acting works like this: You get a script and a paper gown. You get $13.50 an hour. Our scripts are 10 to 12 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 protocol. 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.
My specialty case is Stephanie Phillips, a 23-year-old who suffers from something called conversion disorder. She is grieving the death of her brother, and her grief has sublimated into seizures. Her disorder is news to me. I didn't know you could convulse from sadness. She's not supposed to know, either. She's not supposed to think the seizures have anything to do with what she's lost.
SP Training Materials
CASE SUMMARY: You are a 23-year-old female patient experiencing seizures with no identifiable neurological origin. You can't remember your seizures but are told you froth at the mouth and yell obscenities. You can usually feel a seizure coming before it arrives. The seizures began two years ago, shortly after your older brother drowned in the river just south of the Bennington Avenue Bridge. He was swimming drunk after a football tailgate. You and he worked at the same miniature-golf course. These days you don't work at all. These days you don't do much. You're afraid of having a seizure in public. No doctor has been able to help you. Your brother's name was Will.
MEDICATION HISTORY: You are not taking any medications. You've never taken antidepressants. You've never thought you needed them.
MEDICAL HISTORY: Your health has never caused you any trouble. You've never had anything worse than a broken arm. Will was there when you broke it. He was the one who called the paramedics and kept you calm until they came.
We test second- and third-year medical students in topical rotations: pediatrics, surgery, psychiatry. On any given exam day, each student must go through “encounters”—their technical title—with three or four actors playing different cases.