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Dome - True tales of the humane

May 2011

True tales of the humane

Date: May 20, 2011

Voices from the Hopkins community resonate at Baltimore storytelling showcase

Richard Chisholm
Documentary filmmaker Richard Chisolm tells a personal story of a Hopkins patient and his family at a Stoop Stories event in Turner Auditorium.
photo by Keith Weller

As Melissa Daum stepped up to the microphone on stage in Turner Auditorium, she rubbed her temples with a strained, worried look on her face.

“I’ve got a really bad headache,” she said softly, staring at the floor. “It’s been happening a lot. Light really hurts my eyes and makes me nauseous.” After pausing for a long painful moment, she straightened up as if she had made a dramatic recovery.

“You just met ‘Vanessa Smith,’” she informed an audience that included Hopkins health care providers, administrators and students. “I have to know her inside and out to be prepared for any question that my doctor may ask about her—from the time she goes to bed, to what she eats for breakfast, to the number of sexual partners she’s had.”

For the next seven minutes, Daum explained just  what it’s like to work as a standardized patient, an actor who impersonates patients to help medical students practice their diagnosing, interpersonal and basic examining skills. She gave examples of how she discloses health information, piece by piece, as if it were a kind of “medical striptease.”

Daum was one of seven storytellers who shared compelling accounts about life at Hopkins last month as part of Stoop Stories, a Baltimore-based storytelling show that illuminates various themes through true personal tales. This was the first time that the event has come to Hopkins. Sponsored by the Office of Cultural Affairs, the show also brought three physicians, a nurse, a disaster response expert and a documentary filmmaker to provide insights into Hopkins’ vast medical universe.

Writer Laura Wexler and educator Jessica Henkin, founders and hosts of the five-year-old storytelling series, selected the evening’s presenters, some of whom had responded to a general appeal for volunteers. Sometimes sad, sometimes hilarious, their stories brought rare drama and suspense into a space more accustomed to didactic predictability.

“In these shows, anything can happen,” Wexler says. “Some moments of the show really hit home and others don’t. This show is not about perfection, it’s about offering people glimpses of other people’s lives in the most unmediated way possible.”

The audience of roughly 500 seemed to appreciate such directness. “There are so many great stories at  Hopkins, and this evening made for a great start in  what I hope becomes a series here,” said Sheila Garrity, director of research integrity for the school of medicine and a dedicated “Stoop-goer.”

The show covered a range of experiences:

  Weinberg nurse clinician Amy Brown spoke of her passion for taking care of women with cancer at the end of their lives and paid tribute to one extraordinary patient.

  Anesthesiologist and faculty member Lauri Reamer described what it was like to serve as a volunteer in a study of psilocybin, the psychedelic chemical in “magic mushrooms,” and how the drug helped her recover mentally and psychologically from her treatments for acute lymphocytic leukemia.

  Chinedu Onyedike, a pediatric resident at Hopkins, shared lessons learned from working with a teenage patient with HIV-AIDS.

  Former patient Kenneth Hoffman told of how Hopkins physician Anna Mae Diehl and her team saved his life in 1995, allowing him to resume his career as  a pediatrician.

  Courtland Robinson, deputy director of the Center for Refugee and Disaster Response at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, recounted the diplomatic role that “drinking long, drinking with purpose, and drinking with a certain sense of propriety” played on a research trip to the border of China and North Korea.

Perhaps the most poignant story came from filmmaker Richard Chisolm, who worked as a camera man for “Hopkins,” the 2008 documentary series on ABC. During the course of filming Stephen, a young man who was waiting for a liver transplant, Chisolm became unusually close to Stephen’s parents. And as the ordeal progressed, he became less and less of an objective journalist.

The day Stephen was expected to receive a compatible organ, his heart stopped. Although he was revived and put on life support, Chisolm realized he was no longer eligible for a transplant—which meant that the ABC producers would never feature his story. Nevertheless, he remained with Stephen’s parents, now his friends, as they eventually consented to discontinue life support for their son. He stayed while a nurse with “ballet grace” very carefully removed “all these little connections and tubes” and turned off all life-sustaining equipment. Then he stayed with them in “the silence, the unbearable silence” of that room.

Four years later, when Chisolm gave voice to this story of human connection, the gulf between teller and listeners seemed to melt away. It was as if his seven-minute tale had awoken a flock of similar memories in the audience of healers.

Linell Smith