‘Bruised’ Egos: Theater Students Act as Patients for Nursing Lab

Posted: March 17, 2005 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Pam Cangelosi and Tara Laskowski

“My doctor just told me I have cancer,” a tearful, middle-aged woman tells nursing students gathered in the campus lab. “Should I believe him?”

Students in the second degree accelerated pathway in the College of Nursing and Health Science (CNHS) listen to Mrs. Martin’s unfolding story of her illness. Her question startles them. How should they answer her?

Last fall, in their campus lab, students in CNHS experienced not only high-tech mechanical SimMen, but also real living and breathing simulated patients. “Mrs. Martin” was not middle-aged. She was actually Christina Borders, a theater major at Mason, practicing her improvisational skills and makeup while helping nursing students practice hands-on nursing skills through an interdisciplinary pilot project between CNHS and the College of Visual and Performing Arts.

Funded by a grant from the National League for Nursing, four theater students—Dan Guy, Sarah Innamorato, Anthony Flowers, and Borders—were recruited to assume the roles of patients with serious illnesses. Each week in the lab setting, one of four theater students acted as a patient, relaying their symptoms and illnesses according to case studies that CNHS faculty member Pam Cangelosi and her teaching assistant Tonia Parker developed.

“Some of the nursing students had never even been in a hospital room before,” says Cangelosi. “If anything, this taught them how to break the ice and how to communicate with real patients.”

Throughout the semester, the theater students continued as simulated clients, whose conditions and other health-related issues changed based on the nursing skills taught in the lab. Prior to each encounter, the latest developments in each case were posted on WebCT for the nursing students, along with learning objectives and activities. The theater students also received an update on their roles, with a description of the symptoms, actions, and communication required of them in light of their characters and illnesses. They received one credit toward their degree for participation.

The theater students not only acted, but also incorporated their skills in costume design, makeup, and props by creating realistic-looking incisions, blood, and bruises as needed. “One time I used makeup to make it look like the actual illness, and the students actually thought I had gotten bruised from their IVs,” says Guy, who portrayed an overweight man with a blood clot in his leg.

“The student I worked with during the semester was really great with keeping in character,” says nursing student Debra Gerner. “This was my first time interacting with patients as a nursing student, and it was really helpful. It was nice to know I could learn patient communication in a safe and friendly environment. When I made mistakes, I could talk about them and learn from them.”

While Cangelosi is still collecting data about how the students learned and felt about their experience, she feels that the project was a success. It enhanced the nursing students’ active learning, interviewing abilities, and awareness of the role of their education in their preparation for clinical practice.

The theater students were also enthusiastic about their experience and say they learned a lot. “The biggest challenge was trying to stay in character the whole time, especially while people were asking me questions,” says Guy.

Innamorato, a senior, says the experience helped boost her confidence. “I was reminded again of the terror and the thrill of performing impromptu work,” she says. In her role of “Mrs. Janson,” an elderly woman suffering from congestive heart failure, Innamorato says she also learned something practical. “The nurses even showed me how to change bandages!”

This semester, Cangelosi is using an interpretive phenomenological approach to gather data through nursing student interviews. During these interviews, students will be encouraged to reflect about connections between learning the practice skills and implementing them, as well as the role of the case studies and the simulated patients. Cangelosi hopes to include more theater students in a similar project in the future.

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