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Thespians at Madigan

Medical staff learn from actors playing patients

The Heartsparkle Players: from left, Debe Edden, Lydia Beth Leimbach, Elizabeth Lord, Bob McKenzieSullivan and Hari Nath ??" are best known for acting out stories told by audience members. Photo credit: Ralph Arnold

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Unlikely though it might seem, a troupe of Olympia actors is helping to train medical personnel at Madigan Army Medical Center.

Members of the Heartsparkle Players play the roles of patients who interact with interns, residents and others getting advanced medical training at Madigan's Charles A. Andersen Simulation Center.

Last week, Heartsparkle founder Debe Edden played a young soldier who'd recently returned from Afghanistan and was experiencing symptoms of depression. She worked one at a time with students learning how to do behavioral-health intake interviews, which were observed and recorded.

"We help clinicians communicate better in hard situations, and sometimes the scenarios are about diagnosing or catching some irregularity that is sort of hidden," Edden said.

The actors, who've been working at the center for three years, were trained in how to work as "standardized patients," presenting the same character and details to each student.

Work with standardized patients is a small part of what happens at the center, which also has simulators that allow doctors to practice for doing laparoscopic surgery, dealing with emergencies during childbirth and much more. Andersen Simulation Center, one of only about 50 such centers worldwide that was accredited by the American College of Surgeons as a Level I Educational Institution.

And acting as patients is a small part of the Heartsparkle Players' mission. The troupe is best known for its work with Playback Theatre, a form in which actors perform stories told by audience members.

The actors work with area schools and organizations and do monthly-themed performances at Traditions Café in Olympia. The next performance, set for Friday, will focus on stories about nature. It's a collaboration with Wild Grief, an Olympia nonprofit that leads wilderness trips for grieving teens.

While the audience at Andersen is quite small, Edden finds the work fulfilling.

In one scenario, she played a patient who had terminal cancer and was very ill from chemotherapy. Residents were asked to talk to her about the possibility of signing a do-not-resuscitate order, something the character wasn't ready to do.

"One doctor stood over me and talked in a loud voice and approached this like I was just signing some paperwork," Edden said. "He didn't get that he was asking someone to make a profound decision about her own life.

"I just kept telling him how I felt," she said. "Finally, he walked around the bed and he sat next to me, and then we had a conversation. I saw that this man understood what a profound moment this was."

She later talked to the doctors who'd set up the scenario, and they told her the resident's realization was what they'd hoped to see.

"These are things that are hard to teach," she said. "That's why they use standardized patients.

"Even though everyone knows it's simulated, it becomes real, and people have real responses if the actor does a good job and stays with it."

"Stories of the Healing Power of Nature" with Heartsparkle Players, 7:30 p.m., Friday, Dec. 9, $5-$10 donation suggested, Traditions Cafe & World Folk Art, 300 Fifth Ave. SW, Olympia,, 360.705.2819

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