Health, Science

Student Doctor Finds Real, Life-Threatening Illness In “Patient-Actor”

A doctor with a stethoscope. Image: Alex Proimos
A doctor with a stethoscope. Image: Alex Proimos

A student doctor recently saved the life of an unusual patient, in a very unusual way.

Ryan Jones, a medical student at the University of Virginia School of Medicine, was practicing diagnosing illnesses. (Diagnosing in this case is when a doctor tries to figure out what illness a patient has by asking him questions and by examining him.)

As part of his training, he and other student doctors had to diagnose an actor who was playing the part of an ill patient. The actor would act out symptoms of an illness he pretended to have, and the medical student had to figure out what the illness was.

Of course, the actors didn’t really have any illness—they were just pretending.

Except, in the case of Jim Malloy, he really did have the illness and didn’t know it.

When Ryan Jones examined him, he discovered something in Malloy’s belly called an “aortic aneurysm.” That’s exactly what Malloy had been pretending to have.

Jones accurately diagnosed Malloy, but he was concerned about him. The actors weren’t supposed to actually have the real illness!

Jones told his supervising doctor that he was worried about Malloy. Jones said he thought Malloy should see his own family doctor and have his condition checked out. And that’s exactly what Malloy did.

It turns out Malloy did have an aortic aneurysm that he hadn’t known about. It’s a condition that could have been very serious—in fact, life-threatening if Malloy didn’t have an operation.

Malloy had the operation and he is very grateful to the young doctor for figuring out that what he was pretending to have, was actually real.

Malloy and Jones have met in person since the incident and Malloy has been able to thank Jones for saving his life.

Related links

This isn’t the whole story—we have had to leave out some very interesting details. Listen to the fascinating interview with Ryan Jones on CBC’s As It Happens that contains more information about the event.

Are you curious about “patient-actors” who help student doctors learn how to diagnose illness? Read TKN’s article about Toronto patient-actor Martin Edmonds.

By Kathleen Tilly

Writing/Discussion Prompt
In order to diagnose an illness, a doctor has to observe symptoms and listen to their patient describe how they feel.

Choose a partner in your class. One person will act as the doctor and one person will act as the patient. If you are the patient, you need to pick a common illness (cold, chicken pox, flu, fever etc.), and you will describe how you feel to your doctor and act out the symptoms. If you are the doctor, you will need to guess what illness your patient has.

Try this a couple of times, taking turns to be the doctor and patient. Each time, try to use your acting skills to show the illness instead of just describing how you feel.

Reading Prompt: Making Inferences/Interpreting Texts
Why do you think hospitals hire actors to help train doctors instead of just having doctors read about illnesses in textbooks and medical journals? What do you think they learn differently when they work with a patient-actor compared to reading an explanation of a disease in a book?

Use stated and implied ideas in texts to make inferences and construct meaning (OME, Reading: 1.5).

Develop and explain interpretations of increasingly complex or difficult texts using stated and implied ideas from the texts to support their interpretations (OME, Reading: 1.5).

Grammar Feature: Hyphen
Sometimes, hyphens are used to make words or sentences a bit clearer. For instance, what is the difference between:

1) A patient actor and a patient-actor?

2) An old book collector and an old-book collector?

Can you think of another example where a hyphen can change or clarify the meaning of certain words?