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Anna Deavere Smith explores “crossing the line” of being sick and dying

ADSThe New York Times has written that Anna Deavere Smith, playwright, actress and professor, is the “ultimate impressionist. She does people’s souls.” It was Jonathan King’s soul that Smith summoned up at the Jonathan King Lecture on campus earlier this week. The lecture series, celebrating its 25th year, honors King, who earned a master’s degree and PhD in computer science at Stanford and who became an advocate for patients’ rights after his cancer diagnosis in 1989. The series was created by friends and family to honor King’s memory and to carry on his message of “walking in the shoes of your patients.”

The event opened with a video of King during his life and battle with cancer, including portions of a talk he gave to medical students in which he said, “There is a line that divides people who have passed over to the condition I am in from everybody else.”

Smith weaved those words throughout her performance, as she brought to life patients she had interviewed in the course of her research for her landmark one-woman show “Let Me Down Easy.” Those real life patients included Hazel Merritt, a diabetic patient who had compelling reasons to refuse dialysis treatment; Ruth Katz, former associate dean of administration at Yale Medical School; Ann Richards, former Governor of Texas; and Eduardo Guerro, a patient who said, “You can’t turn dying into a picnic.”

What medical professionals CAN do however, Smith said, is recognize the whole person in the patient. “Take in everything they are, and that starts when you walk in the room and touch the patient,” Smith said. She then echoed King’s advice saying, “Get as close to your patients as possible.”

Smith also addressed the “line” that King referred to. “There is a matter of, of... aloneness for those who have passed over that line, and we can do better as humans and as a society to work to get over it. We need to imagine crossing that line, because we are all human, and we are all going to die.”

In the Q&A portion of the lecture, medical student Arunami Kohli thanked Smith for her moving performance and asked her how she got patients to speak so candidly. Smith's answer: “I have found when people are in crisis, they want to restore their dignity, and when they do, they are so eloquent, they sing. Just remember to give patients that opportunity, to restore their dignity.”

Jacqueline Genovese is assistant director of the Medicine & the Muse Program within the Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics. The center hosts the Jonathan King Lecture.

Previously: Actor Anna Deavere Smith on getting into and under the skin of a character

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