Everything was set for the talent show except the red carpet, and that was not the kind of detail Madeline Snyder would overlook. She bolted through the ballroom, scrolling through a phone wrapped in a dazzling gold Marc Jacobs case.
"I have to go see where my red carpet is," she said. "Oh, my gosh. I got 50 emails."
Snyder is a USF medical student, and when she graduates next year she will be a doctor. She had spent months preparing for a talent show to benefit the University of South Florida's student-run free medical clinic.
But people who know Snyder also know about her old Screen Actors Guild card, and she would not dare put on a hackneyed coffee shop open mic night. This show had professional lights. A violinist at the door. A starry backdrop. A tortellini station.
Snyder sings. She dances. She feels the pull of the limelight, and so do many of her medical school friends. They cha-cha, drum, stroke piano keys, and they bury those things under the crushing weight of 14-hour days and hospital rotations, their attention fixed on exacting science and diagnoses.
But when someone decides to save lives for a living, does the other side of her have to die?
Snyder located the red carpet and oversaw the men rolling it out. Satisfied, she changed into a red gown, strapped stilettos on her feet and soldiered out to the show, hair bouncing behind her like a star.
• • •
Snyder is 25 and barely tops 5 feet, whip-thin, blond with a Louis Vuitton. She hugs. She is always perky and affable, hears your name once and repeats it often. One might underestimate her. Think Elle Woods, the iconic Reese Witherspoon character in Legally Blonde who loves manicures and is so brilliant she knows water deactivates ammonium thioglycolate.
"Yeah," Snyder said. "I get that. A lot."
Everyone said baby Madeline was so cute she should be in commercials. Her parents took her to a Huggies audition, but she didn't get the part. Everyone moved on.
Except as soon as she could talk, they realized they weren't far off. She sang songs from the Little Mermaid. She did ballet and children's theater. She begged her parents to get her into a talent agency. The agency took her on right away.
About 8, Snyder stood in a line of kids and jumped, smiling evidently larger than the others. She was cast in a Red Roof Inn commercial with Martin Mull from Roseanne. In Tampa, she joined a song and dance group called Entertainment Revue, known for producing pop stars and American Idols.
But all along, she showed a noticeable affinity for numbers, facts and order.
When she was 3, her grandmother let her pick any two toys in the store. She picked a doll and a cash register.
She walked around wearing a stethoscope from her toy medical kit. When her cousin gave her flashcards about biology and anatomy, she got obsessed, memorizing everything.
Her middle school science fair project was "The Effect of Lighting on a Person's Ability to Concentrate."
At Berkeley Preparatory School, she was in Bat Boy, Les Miserables and West Side Story. At the University of Pennsylvania, she considered public relations and putting on showstopping events for a living. But there was always the pull to science, and one never felt like enough.
"I always loved science and physics and biochemistry and how the body works," she said. "When it came down to deciding what I want do to with my life, I love performing as a hobby, but I don't think I'd be satisfied with doing that as a career."
• • •
She chose USF's Morsani College of Medicine.
She wrote peer-reviewed publications on movement disorders like Friedreich's ataxia.
She studied changes in handwriting to gauge early precursors to Parkinson's disease.
She co-wrote a book about Parkinson's, its epidemiology, diagnosis, pathophysiology.
She visited a patient in a hospice, and the patient asked her to sing. She sang Hallelujah.
She got in the car one day with medical student Suroosh Marzban. She told him, "I want to do a talent show." He wanted to form a glee club. They teamed up.
She asked the dean for permission to do a talent show. He said find out whether students had talents.
She went into a final exam. When the test was over, she and Marzban hopped on desks with a giant bandage spinning like a disco ball on the overhead screen. They gripped microphones and sang.
Every touch, it would bring me to life, I can only imagine.
Only imagine what it'd be liiiiiiiiike.
Students flung rainbow printer paper into the air and danced around the class in cartwheels and pirouettes.
• • •
In a room of white lab coats at the BRIDGE Healthcare Clinic, Snyder wore an electric blue dress and gold stilettos.
"Is anyone really outgoing and likes to be on camera?"
Two years had passed since that final exam flash mob, since Snyder produced her first two talent shows. Her third was a month away, on Jan. 10. It would be the last show before the fourth year of medical school, when applying for residencies and picking a specialty would force planning to the back seat. This year had to be especially good.
Snyder interviewed clinic workers for a video to show at intermission. The audience had to believe in the clinic's mission in order to buy the autographed hockey sticks and massages and brunches on the silent auction tables, to cut a big check and drop it in Snyder's gold glitter-coated baskets shaped like stars.
The first talent show in 2012 brought in $2,000. The second year, after Tom Pepin donated his TPepin's Hospitality Centre for the event and Snyder worked her charm to secure big sponsors and auction items, it brought in $25,000.
The donations help sustain the clinic and its poor clientele who live in the downtrodden areas around USF. Some are unemployed, or migrant farm workers, or just down on their luck.
Students and doctors come every Tuesday night to volunteer and learn in a real-life setting. Patients get everything from primary care to physical therapy to screenings to education on how not to get sick again.
Snyder's first trip to the clinic made her tremble.
"I was so nervous, I didn't even know what an HPI was," she said. That's history of the present illness, for the rest of us.
The clinic taught her to ask questions gently and build relationships. So when she saw a patient in the lobby, she remembered her. Carmen Martinez worked at a sweets shop at Busch Gardens, and her whole family went to the BRIDGE clinic. She came that night last month carrying a cake she made for the staff.
Snyder asked to get video of her, to help talent show guests understand why all this mattered.
Martinez spoke in broken English about her husband's diabetes, her son's bipolar disorder, her fibromyalgia.
"These people is amazing," she said. "These young people. I never had the time to study something for myself in a class …"
"I need somebody next to me to tell me, 'Everything is okay. If you have a problem, we listen. Carmen, you need to take time for yourself. I know you doing so many things for other people. You talk about your son, you work, pero, you need to do something for yourself because you, you a person. You have feelings.' I'm going home with some kind of, I don't know, that someone appreciate whatever I do in my life."
Snyder thanked her, and stopped the camera.
• • •
"Go back to the foundation of medicine," Snyder's roommate said.
The BANDaids for BRIDGE talent show was about to start, and Mia Djulbegovic sat with Marzban at a dinner table covered in glitter scrapbook squares and sugar cookies shaped like Band-Aids. Also a third-year medical student, she pondered the marriage of arts and science. They didn't have to be at odds.
"Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine," she said, leaning into the dim light and glitter. "He opens that book by saying medicine is the crossroads of scientific skill and human understanding. Human understanding is what we associate more with these kinds of liberal arts educations. It's not just a one-brained kind of specialty. You have to be right and left.
"And there is an art to medicine."
Snyder came on stage to co-host the show, smiling to the last row.
She helped introduce the polka and Bollywood dancers, the stand-up comic, the harpist, the student studying interventional radiology who played violin, and the student studying maternal and child health who sang I'm Here from The Color Purple.
And I'm thankful for everyday that I'm given,
Both the easy and hard ones I'm livin'.
But most of all, I'm thankful for loving who I really am.
That won first place.
And Snyder came out in a costume prison dress with a coordinating striped hat and high-heel boots. She wasn't leaving without the chance to do what she loved almost as much as medicine.
She sang Jail House Rock with the CEO of the USF Foundation. And with the medical school's interim leader, she sang, "I'm a Woman, W-O-M-A-N," flinging her hair and growling on the low notes. And in her last act before an upcoming surgical rotation, before finding a hospital to call home and a career to call her own, she thrust her hand into the lights.
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3394.