When a patient dies as the result of a medical error, the aftermath -- the search for answers, the desire for justice, the need to grieve and move on -- can be agonizing, for both loved ones and the medical team involved.
It’s rare, though, that the two sides see the struggle that each goes through, particularly when the case becomes the subject of a lawsuit.
In her new drama “Love Alone,” playwright Deborah Salem Smith puts the two parties on the same stage, often at the same time.
Stories about malpractice frequently are told with sympathies toward one side or the other, said Smith, who is playwright-in-residence with the Trinity Repertory Company, which is performing the show through May 27.
“We never actually force people to hear both stories simultaneously,” she said.
The play tells the story about a woman named Susan who dies in surgery, her family’s hunger for answers as the hospital goes silent, and the young anesthesiologist whose reputation and confidence is on the line.
It is a universal tale about grief and healing. But it has also garnered attention from people who grapple every day with fallibility in medicine and the reality that, in the operating room or elsewhere in health care, things do not always go as planned.
On Friday, the class of second-year medical students from the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University will see the show, as part of an ongoing effort to integrate creative arts and the humanities into medical training there.
Stories like this one provide a way to talk about the nuances in medicine, the grey areas, said Dr. Jay Baruch, writer and assistant professor of emergency medicine at the school.
Too often, “we don’t talk about issue of forgiveness, how to move forward if a harm occurs,” Baruch said. “We want doctors to be human, but we don’t talk about if there’s a mistake as a result of that.”
Suzanne Duni of Lifespan, Rhode Island’s largest hospital system, has arranged for actors to perform scenes from “Love Alone” during a lunchtime grand rounds meeting next week.
Duni, a long-time nurse and attorney, who analyzes lawsuits involving Lifespan to find ways to avoid future errors, said she has seen doctors “go sour” when they are named in a suit. They know that they chose the field of medicine to help people, and they do not understand why a family would choose to sue, she said.
“I thought it would be very interesting to be able to show the two sides of the coin, and I thought Deb did that beautifully in the play,” Duni said.
The play weaves together scenes from the two families, sometimes putting Susan’s partner, Helen, and their daughter, Clementine, on stage at the same time as Dr. Becca Neal and her husband, as both groups struggle with turmoil caused by Susan’s death.
After her partner graduated from medical school, Smith said, some of the couple’s friends were named in lawsuits. She saw what a profound effect the experience had on them, sometimes causing them to become “unmoored” and to lose faith in their own intuition.
“These are people who I just can’t fathom aren’t great doctors,” she said. “It really was changing the course of how they were going through medicine.”
At the same time, Smith was looking for a way to write about a story told often in her family about how her grandmother behaved when her youngest son was struck and killed by a school bus at the age of 8. Almost immediately, she forgave the driver.
“It was like this mythic family story,” Smith said. “Forgiveness leads to healing.”
That message is powerfully told in “Love Alone,” culminating with a scene in which the two sides meet that is full of gut-wrenching grief and regret and release. Afterward, Dr. Neal talks with an attorney from the hospital.
“If I get sick, this is the hospital I’ll go to––my husband will go to––this is the hospital you will go to,” she says. “When they put you on my table, who do you want me to be?”
Asked about that line, Smith said that if the play had a tagline, it might be this: “We’ll all be patients someday.”
Chelsea Conaboy can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @cconaboy.