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This week's Chicagoan: Ed Dzialo, actor

“I role-play with medical students, playing a patient with a terminal disease. The diagnosis changes all the time, but generally it's cancer.”


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A first-person account from off the beaten track, as told to Anne Ford.

"I used to be so afraid of people dying. I mean, it would wake me up sometimes. I, as a kid, was forbidden from watching Trapper John, M.D. because invariably I would wake up my parents, and I would tell them I had the disease of the week.

"Then, when I was 23, my mother was diagnosed with cervical cancer. She was in the hospital, and I went to visit, and my dad told me that the oncologist had given him her prognosis, and it was only months. I was so angry that I destroyed the blinds in the window.

"There was some issue with insurance, and they said my mother could no longer stay in the hospital, so there was a hospital bed put in our family room. I was living at home. I was so angry that whenever the hospice nurses came, I wouldn't talk to them; I'd just go upstairs.

"But my mother died really peacefully and comfortably. My father called hospice to prepare the body. I remember that none of us wanted to go into the family room. But the nurse suggested we all come in because there was a smile on my mother's face. It ended up being an incredible experience.

"I was an obese teen. When my mother died, I was in a phase of having lost weight. When she died on April 26, I weighed 170. By July 4, I was 200. I desperately, on a soul level, wanted to do this work as an actor, and yet I knew that there were so many opportunities that I just was not going to be eligible for.

"I lost weight, but I gained it back. The second time, I put myself on the Zone diet, and I lost about 65 pounds. I was so afraid of gaining it back that I went to Weight Watchers, and I ended up losing 35 more pounds. It did change my life. My work is much more potent, and I'm much more confident since losing the weight.

"I am a full-time actor, and I primarily do stage work. I also do medical work—I role-play with medical students, playing a patient with a terminal disease. The diagnosis changes all the time, but generally it's cancer. They often put me in a gown. Sometimes they'll hook me up to all the stuff.

"The students have to come in and break the news to me about the diagnosis. The medical schools do this because they don't want the students having these conversations with actual patients until we've helped them understand that this is as important as putting a line in or any other clinical procedure.

"Once I was playing a patient with terminal lung cancer, and one of the residents made the comment that she wanted to have the 'do not resuscitate' conversation with me because I was the one in control of my body. That elicited an 'Are you kidding me?' moment. I'm dying! How am I in control of my body? So those sorts of moments give them pause: 'Oh yeah, that's not the best choice of words.'"


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