Katherine van Kampen is a medical student at McMaster university.Picture of Katherine van Kampen

Theatre was a cornerstone of my childhood but, after starting medical school, I feared that passion would have to take a backseat. After a year without seeing any live theatre, I was lucky enough to have an opportunity to go to New York City and feed my passion.

While taking time off from medicine, I saw a Broadway musical, Waitress, that centers around Jenna, a woman trapped in an abusive relationship who uses baking metaphors to cope. It features a romantic, and completely unethical relationship with her doctor. As I watched the show, I found myself tense when I watched the doctor and Jenna engage in inappropriate conduct on an exam table. As I left the theatre, I kept thinking about this doctor-patient relationship.

The way in which the doctor is portrayed in Waitress may reveal the positive connotation some may associate with physicians. Contrasted against Jenna’s husband who steals her money, screams at her and gaslights her, the doctor looks like the better man, despite kissing her in his own examination room. The show paints him a positive light despite the countless ethical violations. He is a doctor, a healer, a good man. In fact, one could argue that his relationship with Jenna is portrayed as an extension of his good-naturedness, caring for his patient in all aspects, even as he cheats on his wife. The “goodness” of the physician is portrayed in such a positive light despite his very questionable moral actions.

While just fiction, Waitress gives a crash course on things you shouldn’t do as a doctor:

One, don’t engage in romantic or sexual activity with current patients. The professional boundary was crossed with Jenna and the doctor’s first kiss and his failure to terminate their medical relationship. Two, don’t be involved in the birth of another man’s child conceived with the woman you’re in an affair with.

Waitress highlights the ways in which the “goodness” of the professional allows physicians to be portrayed in such a positive light despite questionable moral actions. While infidelity is addressed in the show, the doctor’s potential abuse of power in the relationship is never mentioned. To me, this illustrated the power doctors hold, and the way society views us. We will not always be perfect, but the expectation that we “do good” will most likely follow us whether we are wearing a white coat or not.

I also saw La Boheme, an opera about impoverished artists in Paris living under the shadow of tuberculosis. Sound familiar? Perhaps because La Boheme was the inspiration for the hit musical Rent, which centers around impoverished artists in New York City, under the shadow of the HIV/AIDS crisis. Disease plays a starring role in many shows and plays; it surrounds us, even in the art we consume.

La Boheme is a story about love and wealth; tuberculosis (TB) is a vehicle of tragedy. During the romantic era of the late 19th century, consumption, the dignified way to refer to TB infection, became a fashionable way to die; it represented your attractiveness and sophistication. The consumptive look was so desirable that women began to powder their faces to create a feverish glow and create clothing that mimicked the wasting bodies of those with consumption.

In contrast, AIDS was not romanticized, especially at the start of the HIV/AIDS crisis when it was considered a moral failing. Those who contracted HIV/AIDS were ignored and persecuted for their sexual activity, until Ryan White, a child with hemophilia, was mourned as an “innocent victim” of the disease. In La Boheme, tuberculosis is a tragic, romantic, beautiful way for the main character to succumb to death. In Rent, HIV positive characters allow the narrative to be switched, highlighting that people belonging to the LGBTQ+ community have a right to health. While La Boheme uses disease as a dramatic device, Rent, at the time of its opening, offered a perspective on HIV/AIDS that was inventive and humanizing, something that had been lacking at the start of the epidemic the 1980s. Though they tell similar stories, the portrayal of disease differs completely, highlighting the way disease and health intermix within historical and cultural contexts.

Theatre gave me so much in my week in New York. It made me laugh, cry and smile. I didn’t expect that Broadway would be the place that I would ponder how practitioners of medicine are portrayed and the way diseases reflect our society.