Warning: this one is a little graphic, please don’t read further if you are delicate or easily offended.
Over the weekend, I saw Anna Deavere Smith in her show, Let Me Down Easy, at the Berkeley Rep Theater. It grabbed hold of me from the opening minutes and didn’t let go until well after the final bow. If you are in the Bay Area and you think about death from a clinical or political or social perspective, it is a must-see.
The piece that ripped through me was Kiersta Kurtz-Burke, a doctor at Charity Hospital in New Orleans who Smith embodies by telling stories of medical training and providing care for patients in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Her description of an OB/GYN resident, with whom she worked as a medical student, giving a pelvic exam to a 13 year old girl with pelvic inflammatory disease (which makes the exam unbearably painful) is chilling. He had ushered the girl’s aunt out of the exam room and when the girl screams in pain says, “what’s wrong with you? Surely you’ve had something bigger than my two fingers up there or you wouldn’t be in this situation in the first place.”
Although I know plenty of dedicated, empathetic and outstanding physicians, the lack of humanity described by this encounter still rings true for me and my experience of many in the medical profession and even in the development community. And it galls me.
It was the most visceral description of the belief that somehow those in pain have created their circumstances. That the poor have not tried hard enough, that the sick have not taken care of themselves, that the disenfranchised have alienated themselves. That blame can be handed out. And by placing it on the head of the person in need, that we have no culpability, can be distanced from it, and protect ourselves from experiencing the pain.
Later, Kurtz-Burke shares her experience of reaching the realization that the government wouldn’t be coming to the rescue of the patients and staff at Charity, the public hospital in New Orleans, even five days after the evacuation of private hospitals had started. Her observation that it was only her, with her privileged background, who had not already experienced the denial of her existence and of her need, the patients and nurses were not surprised that they would be left to fend for themselves. That had always been their experience. The shame that brought Kurtz-Burke seeped through Smith and out into the audience and I experienced it as I had in watching the event unfold the first time.
I didn’t expect to be a part of the performance, to feel it so deeply, to feel the presence of the individuals who weren’t there in person, but channeled in spirit. I was, I am and I do still.