The vending machine just ate my money.
“Goddamnit,” I whisper, because the medical school is a quiet and barren place, and voices travel. Then I do what everybody does in this situation: I feel the change return for spare quarters, I step back, and then I try to shake the machine.
This never works, and this machine is bolted, fast, to the wall. I press my face against the plastic Pepsi logo, fingers digging into the sides of the machine, and I try to pull the appliance forward. Nothing happens. Not even a jiggle.
In the thick of grad school, I have lifted restrictions on two things: caffeine, and food. I will spend any amount of money on caffeine and food, consume them in whatever quantity, because I spend dawn until midnight rushing from job to second job to class to home, and I never know when I’ll be able to recharge.
This is insanely unhealthy behavior, I know, especially for a guy who works at a hospital. But it’s also typical—Standardized Patients are always sucking down 7-Eleven cappuccinos and chomping slices of pizza. There are some vegetarians and health-nuts among us, but not many. Actors are foragers. If a substance keeps us going for the next three hours, we’ll nosh on it, especially if it’s free. And actor-grad-students? No Danish or bag of Funyuns is too stale, as long as it’s readily available.
Also, we live in the Rust Belt. We put French fries in our sandwiches.
The students are running late. This is always a relief—when classes run too long, or professors have to sprint from one complex to another. For once, we SPs are ahead of schedule, and we are waiting for the med school to catch up. If there’s one thing I can do at 30 years old, it’s stop and take a breath.
Martha approaches me and says, “What room are you?”
“Six-twenty-six,” I say.
“Oh, me too. I guess we’re sharing.”
Martha leans against the cinderblock wall and stares at the floor. Martha is one of our actual bona fide nurses, who doubles as an SP. We all take this job seriously, but Martha is a perfectionist—she’s probably the oldest woman in the program, silver-haired and wrinkled, but she’s also one of the sharpest. She would rather memorize every single detail of the case, quizzing herself for hours on the minutest points, than risk having to improvise a single moment. I admire this approach, but my left-handed brain can’t follow suit. If Martha and I were artists, she would be an illustrator for The Saturday Evening Post, and I would paint watercolors of clouds.
As Martha meditates, I look at the framed portraits on the opposite wall. These are my favorite decorations in the medical school: photographs of the graduating classes. The pictures are tiny and oval, and each frame contains 50 to 100 faces and names. The first frame reads, GRADUATING CLASS OF 1925. The next is 1926, then 1927, proceeding in chronological order until the present day. These two corridors are filled with such pictures, and the frames are expertly hung and evenly spaced.
The class I’m staring at—1937—is exactly what you’d expect. Every student is some kind of Caucasian. They wear suits and their dos are perfectly quaffed. Their hair is mostly dark or blond, and their only diverse features are their bowties. If a woman graduated in 1937, I don’t see her. They all smile, and most are handsome. These men seem less like medical students than aspiring movie stars.
The new physicians of 1937 believed that red meat was good for you. Cigarettes were a decent pastime. Children were smacked around for bad behavior, and women were still accused of hysteria. But these men were also working on X-rays and a cure for typhus. The first antibiotic medication, Sulfonamide, had just been patented.
As I duck-walk down the hall, still waiting for the students to start trickling in, I see the portraits change. An African-American man appears. Women pop up. Hairstyles evolve—from crew cuts and beehives to pompadours and bouffants. By the 1970s, the medical school had become a hairy hodgepodge of black and white faces, men and women, mustaches, muttonchops, afros and bowl-cuts. By then, surgeons could still smoke in the operating room (one senior doctor once told me that he would balance his ashtray on a sleeping patient’s chest). The Stanford Prison Experiment was about to change research ethics. Roe vs. Wade had just hit the U.S. Supreme Court.
None of them had ever heard of a Standardized Patient. Our profession barely existed.
And now it’s the 21st century, and the students are nearly as diverse as the human species—men and women, Asians, Indians, Latinos and Africans, plus ethnicities that are impossible to place, geniuses who have traveled around the globe to study physiology and preserve life. So many kinds of people, and they all heard the same calling.
I get a strange feeling when I gaze at all these faces. Being an SP is more than an odd job. These physicians are among the best in world history. Sure, they can run MRIs and reconstruct a severed hand, which nobody could imagine in 1937. But they also understand their patients better. They know to empathize and ask personal questions, to resist judgment and to spot hidden desperation. In some small way, these photographed faces are the fruits of our labor, too.
Lidia leans into the hall. “Hey,” she says.
“Hey,” I say.
“You know the students are running late, right?”
“Yeah, I heard. No problem.”
“You want some coffee?”
Every feature on my face perks up. “Yes!” I exclaim.
This is serious work. Today, I drink it black.