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Lights, Camera, Medicine

By Maria Zankey

Students from Drexel's Story Medicine class at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia
Story Medicine students prepare to perform a skit for CHOP patients.

January 18, 2018

Fifteen Drexel students stood bright-eyed and eager to entertain in front of cameras rolling at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

Part of a Drexel community-based learning course dubbed Story Medicine, the students were there to engage sick and disabled children through live broadcast programming, using skits to infuse laughter with a little education.

The lesson of the day was “helping.” Through the camera, a student asked the youngsters viewing in the studio, the lobby and even from their hospital beds: “Have any of you ever helped anybody?”

One little girl looked up from her coloring page in the studio: “Can I answer?” she wondered out loud.

She stood proudly as she was brought in front of the camera. “I’m helping my brother right now,” she said. “He needed a bone marrow transplant, so I gave him one.”

The students, along with course instructor Nomi Eve, listened in awe of the little girl’s bravery.

“I’ll never forget that beautiful moment — the learning experience it provided for our Drexel students about their place in the world, the ways they can have an impact, how they can help,” says Eve, an assistant teaching professor in the Department of English and Philosophy.

Eve says the touching moment is one of many she’s experienced since she began teaching the course in the spring of 2016.

Twice a week throughout the quarter, the students produce and perform a half-hour broadcast for CHOP patients. They have only a half hour to prepare the show at the Seacrest Studios, a broadcast media center provided by the Ryan Seacrest Foundation to help pediatric patients explore creative media.

“On the second day of class, I ask students to look around the atrium of CHOP, and I speak to them as a fiction writer,” says Eve, a novelist by trade. “I tell them, ‘This place is a nexus for stories. Can you sense the stories taking place here? This is a living, breathing place — and what you will learn here will be immeasurable.’”

Story Medicine, while touching on subjects ranging from acting and production to digital media, is, at its core, a writing course.

Eve breaks the course into two components. First, there’s the in-class portion, where students are in the studio, working the teleprompter, performing on camera and helping patients in the studio with arts and crafts while they watch.

Second, there’s the out-of-class portion, when students collaborate on scripts, workshop their classmates’ ideas and reflect on the core principles of the course.

They learn to work collaboratively and improvise. They learn to deliver a product — their script and performance — to a real client under a deadline.

And often, they learn to go outside of their comfort zones.

Students are encouraged, even required, to let their imaginations run wild. They don Batman costumes and write scripts with titles like “Sneezy Princess” and “Evil Donut.”

“Every student has an interaction that changes them — an interaction with a child that forces them to confront difficult circumstances,” says Eve.

That has been especially true for Victoria Milano, a sophomore psychology major who plans to go to medical school. She says her experience in the course has been “nothing short of profound.”

Her aspirations to become a doctor stem from personal experience; having undergone multiple heart surgeries while growing up, she says she knows too well what it’s like to spend days in a hospital bed.

“To be an undergrad and have the ability to brighten not only a child’s experience at CHOP, but also their family’s, was eye-opening,” Milano says. “Walking out of the hospital, I had a refreshing sense of confidence in my choice of major. This course has allowed me a glimpse into my future, solidifying my desires to be a physician. What happens at CHOP really is magical.”

This quarter, the course is taking student-patient engagement one step further. CHOP has identified three patients with long-term hospitalizations to work directly with veteran Story Medicine students to develop their own original stories. With the help of Westphal’s Nick Jushchyshyn, program director for animation, visual effects and immersive media, the scripts will be brought to life in animations that will be broadcast throughout the hospital.

“These patients have amazing ideas, and my students end up being such sophisticated storytellers,” Eve says. “The questions they ask these kids are questions a good editor would ask of a writer. I’ve been able to watch my students step into a different role than they’re used to, and do it with real intelligence and grace to create amazing stories.”