“I am appalled for every patient who comes on this unit” – an afternoon with @susannahfox and Anna Deavere Smith’s “Let Me Down Easy”

Arena Stage, Washington, DC

After our last walking meeting, Susannah Fox ( @susannahfox ) invited me to see “Let Me Down Easy,” at Washington, DC’s Arena Stage ( @arenastage ), and so we went.

The performance is like the ultimate ethnogrpahy – interviews of patients, community leaders, and physicians from all walks of life, acted, channelled by Deavere Smith, right down to the body language.

The quote in the title of the post is from Ruth Katz, in her response to the oncology fellow at Yale School of Medicine, who tells her that her chart has been lost on her admission for fever while on chemotherapy, and that it’s a common occurrence, and could she tell him about her cancer. Ruth Katz also happened to be the Associate Dean for the Yale School of Medicine.

You can see video of this piece here (go to 4:49).

The Ruth Katz interview was performed 11 years ago . Can we say that this situation is different today?

There are 19 other people in the show, including Lance Armstrong and Lauren Hutton, who have been interviewed since then. Some of the stories are horrifying -the one most for me – Hazel Merritt, whose daughter was sent home in a bloody sheet after a dialysis treatment gone awry. Some are saddening, the resignation you hear in people’s voices about a science they don’t think they can or should understand, or the reality revealed that what happens to a person in the hospital is often determined before you get to the hospital (as commented so eqloquently afterward by guest speaker Vanessa Northington Gamble, M.D., Ph.D.).

I have to say, at the same time I was watching and reflecting, it was not lost on me that I was experiencing this with Susannah Fox , and really the entire DC community. All of us, regardless of location (remember, #epicenter is about spirit, not geography) have in ourselves the ability to believe that every change we want to see is possible, because it is. We can receive stories and change the conversation with them, just like Regina Holliday‘s and ePatient Dave‘s did.

Maybe Ruth Katz’s situation is repeated somewhere in the United States every day, but maybe also the oncology fellow is a little more appalled on behalf of every patient in 2011.

The performance has recently been filmed to be shown on PBS, and I highly recommend watching it. We still don’t have enough stories.


Thank you for writing about this, Ted! It was an amazing experience to witness a continual transformation of one person into 20 personae and I am still digesting my impressions. The PBS show will be a must-watch for anyone who missed the live performance (or who wants to experience it again).

Another reason I hesitate to write about it was actually covered in the play when Ann Richards talked about chi ("my life force, you know"). Channeled through Anna Deavere Smith, the former governor of Texas describes how her chi is sapped away by people who ask for little bits of her time, when what she really needs is to store up that energy and focus on staying healthy. Richards credits her daughter with protecting her chi by dealing with the business end of being sick (insurance forms, etc.) and boy did that resonate with me and other audience members.

Humbly, I'm protecting my chi in order to devote it to writing my next report, which will focus on people living with rare disease, their own or a loved one's. I have to do most of the analysis and writing at home since I find myself weeping much of the time that I work on this project. The bravery of people living with rare disease matches or surpasses every other community I have worked with — ACOR, PatientsLikeMe, BrainTalk, HealthCentral — and I'm driven to try to tell their stories in a way that will honor them and shine a light for all of us.

In a way, seeing "Let Me Down Easy" was the perfect chi recharge. I hope my upcoming report (and some of my past work) can play the same role in other people's lives.

Ted Eytan, MD