Magazine article The New Yorker

Say “Ahhh”

Magazine article The New Yorker

Say “Ahhh”

Article excerpt

Say “Ahhh”

Natalie Wilder was sitting on a couch in a greenroom, using her iPhone to apply for a part in a film. Back in June, she starred in a one-woman play, “Fresh Hell: The Life and Loves of Dorothy Parker,” at the Oldcastle Theatre Company, in Bennington, Vermont. In an hour, she was going to reprise a different solo role, one of dozens she’s performed multiple times in recent years. “Today, I have lower-back pain,” she said, as she scrolled through her calendar.

Wilder has shoulder-length brown hair and was wearing jeans and a turtleneck sweater. That afternoon, she was working as a so-called standardized patient, or S.P.—someone who has been trained to portray specific symptoms or illnesses, so that medical students can practice on a living person without accidentally making things worse. “The most interesting cases are probably the psychiatric ones,” she said. “And for one case I had to learn to use makeup to draw heroin tracks on my arm.” The greenroom (which actually was green) was in a building at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, in the Bronx. Wilder checked the time; in a little while, she would need to swap her regular clothes for a hospital gown.

Wilder’s boss that day was Anna Lank, who is the managing director of C3NY, an organization that supplies S.P.s to medical programs throughout the metropolitan area. Lank is in her early sixties. “I have a degree in theatre from U.C.L.A., and I did the whole thing—summer stock, Off Off Broadway, Off Broadway, whatever—but I had to stop, because I was having fertility treatments,” she said. She got into standardized-patient work as a way to supplement an unreliable income from the stage, and then made a career of it.

“Most of my S.P.s are actors,” she said, as she ran down her cast list. “Natalie is married to Patrick, who’s also here today—they met when they were in a play in Vermont. Erin has a master’s in Shakespeare and is teaching a stage-combat class. Nadine is a grandma and a singer. Megan acts, and she and a partner do workshops for kids at which they teach manners. I think of them as my theatre troupe.”

S.P. work figures in a 1998 “Seinfeld” episode, “The Burning,” in which Kramer, with help from a cigarette and a maroon smoking jacket, dramatically describes the romantic entanglement that resulted in what the medical students examining him are eventually able to identify as gonorrhea. …

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