RUSKIN — It started with a friendly chat on a plane.
John Connelly, director of the occupational therapy program at Gannon University in Ruskin, struck up a conversation with the woman sitting next to him. She shared that she was traveling to Chicago to help her daughter, a teacher in the Northwestern University medical school, with a new project: bring in actors to role-play certain medical conditions with the students.
In turn, the students had to determine the diagnosis and treatment for each illness being portrayed. Connelly embraced the concept and decided to include that type of experiential learning into his curriculum.
As a result, the new college has connected with community actors to create an exercise that's meaningful to both the would-be patients and the students at the university, which expanded from its Pennsylvania campus to Ruskin last year.
Connelly started by searching for acting troupes and learned from one of his therapy patients of two performing companies: the Pelican Players from Kings Point and the SouthShore Players (formerly the Performing Arts Club). He reached out to members of both groups and after a brief orientation, asked actors to mimic the symptoms for such conditions as dementia, Parkinson's, multiple sclerosis, head trauma, stroke and ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease.
The actors were given a "script" that described the symptoms of the illness and some of the difficulties associated with it. Then, the occupational therapy students interviewed the actors.
An unexpected learning experience occurred during the process.
"We have been learning about different diagnoses in our medical science class," said occupational therapy student Meghan Billick. "During the interview process with the actors, we were able to see firsthand the actual stuff we've been talking about in class. It really opened my eyes to the fact that the things we're learning in class really do apply to real patients who have these disabilities."
Alexa Richter, another student working on her doctoral degree in occupational therapy, said the exercise helped her step out of her comfort zone.
"It make us think on our toes and that's something that is going to be invaluable once we get into the clinic," Richter said. "When we do role-playing with each other, it's so easy because we know each other, but when you're with someone you don't know, you don't know how they are going to respond or how they'll act. It was great to experience that."
Student Adele Campbell said the experience added real-life emotion to the clinical text book descriptions.
"It's completely different when there is another human being sitting in front of you that's having trouble and it's really affecting their life," Campbell said. "I wasn't expecting to feel that emotional tug. I was glad to have that experience."
After the actors were interviewed, the students were asked to write a five-to seven-page reflection of their impressions of the illnesses and the whole process.
"They did well, their papers were excellent," Connelly said. "This is what they're going to see in the real world. These experiential learning projects are critical to the development of the doctorate program."
The experiential approach also proved memorable for the actors.
Shirley Walker, a member of the Pelican Players, was asked to portray a patient with Parkinson's disease and it turned out to be a very emotional experience for her.
"I know someone who has Parkinson's and it made it very personal for me," Walker said. "I'm such an active person and to think that these simple things that I've always done and now I can't do them, that can really make your emotions go a little wild.
"While I was answering the questions, I could just take on that role and give them my own feedback. Some things they expected from me and some they didn't, especially when I started to cry. But it was a great experience … I'm glad I did it."
This event was only the beginning of role-playing exercises involving actors. This first interview process served to introduce occupational therapy to the "patient" and to ask specific questions geared to a specific diagnosis. Next semester there will be two more sessions for the student/actor interviews involving neurorehabilitation and more-detailed patient assessment.
"This is a perfect way to practice what we do," Connelly said. "Where else can you tap into something like this? (The actors) knew something about the disease itself, they had personal experience with it. You can't find that just anywhere unless you get the real patient."
For more information about the occupational therapy doctorate program at Gannon or to take part in the role-playing experience, contact the university at (814) 860-6170.
Editor's note: Kathy Straub is a member of the SouthShore Players and was one of the participants in the exercise. Contact Straub at email@example.com.