Changingaging readers know that Dr. Bill Thomas recently debuted a dramatic play at The Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis.
You might be surprised to learn the play was not about aging. Harking back to his days as a med student at Harvard, the play, “Play What’s Not There,” (PWNT) takes us through the pressure cooker of medical interning for doctors and explores how the choices we all make impact our future selves.
Commissioned by the Minnesota-based HealthPartners Institute for Education to write a play that addresses physician well-being, Dr. Thomas masterfully weaves humor, a dash of mythology and powerful metaphors into a thought-provoking performance exploring our tenuous relationships with life/work balance.
PWTN does not play out like an episode of Grey’s Anatomy. Love triangles mixed with dramatic life-saving medical interventions do not feature prominently in the story. Instead, we get a glimpse of the acute pressure those in the medical profession place on themselves and the difficulty they face in balancing the pursuit of healing, perfection and ambition with their own personal well-being.
The play has five characters, each at various stages of their careers, who struggle with issues of stress, family life, work demands, and destiny. Beatrice, a talented medical student with high ideals, fails to match to a residence program, as she is viewed as “not fully committed” to her medical career. In her eyes she is seeking a better balance between career and family. Offered a residency position in the scramble, she must make a quick decision. Her choice ultimately affects the lives of four other physicians in the play. As she explores her options in the play, the audience also begins to see the impact of our choices on our careers, families, and personal well-being.
Thomas, an international authority on geriatric medicine as well as a prominent cultural critic, author, novelist and musician, said all audiences can relate to Beatrice’s journey as a new physician seeking her own path that is aligned with her values.
“When it comes to balancing work and life, our culture has its thumb pressed firmly on the work side of the scale,” Thomas said. “Bringing our lives back into balance requires making difficult choices.”
The medical profession in particular faces and urgent need to address issues of work/life balance for doctors. Doctors have a significantly higher rate of suicide than the general public — 40 percent higher for males and a staggering 130 percent for females. Suicide is just the extreme symptom of a life out of balance. Medical students in general also experience significantly higher rates of depression, burnout and other mental illness. And it’s not just doctors who suffer, but quality of care as well.
HealthPartners is working to stage the play in theaters across the country and engage audiences in discussions about improving work/life balance. Already, several prominent medical associations and organizations have engaged the Guthrie Theater to perform PWNT at their conferences.ChangingAging invites anyone in its audience to contact us if you’d like a copy of the script and information about staging a production of PWNT. Contact us at Editor@ChangingAging.org or here.