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Sunday, April 21, 2024

White Coat Company brings laughter, light to children at UF Health Shands Hospital

Medical students organize theater productions for patients

A child patient at UF Health Shands Hospital told Caretia Washington she was acting a fool of herself during her performance as the magic mirror in “Shrek.”

Washington, a 24-year-old third-year medical student, took the girl’s comment as a compliment. The medical student made the girl laugh, and that’s all Washington could’ve asked for.

Washington is one of about 50 UF medical students and faculty who participate in White Coat Company, a theater group that performs about two productions per year for the children at Shands. White Coat Company falls under Creative Practice, which is a UF group that integrates creative expression into its academic paths and careers.

For each performance — despite how silly she appeared on stage in her costumes — Washington said seeing the children smile was all that mattered.

“This is what I’m doing it for,” she said.

This year, the group returned to live performances after about a three-year hiatus brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. White Coat Company performed “Shrek” and “The Little Mermaid” on Valentine’s Day outside Shands. 

When the show ended after about a half hour, the medical students handed out Valentine’s Day cards and hugs to the children before the audience members were ushered back into the hospital.

Each show in a live performance typically doesn’t last longer than 20 minutes for the sake of the childrens’ health. The theater group films its productions to post on YouTube, which typically last about 30 to 45 minutes.

For medical students like Washington, White Coat Company provides an opportunity to reignite a passion for acting and stage production.

“I actually grew up wanting to be an actress,” she said.

But her parents said acting wasn’t a practical full-time career. She acted in middle school and high school before discovering a passion for science. The White Coat Company became her newest creative outlet amid a rigorous academic track. She joined the group three years ago and has served as the narrator in each production, the magic mirror in “Shrek” and the grandmother in “Moana.”

The White Coat Company has four directors each year, who divide into pairs to direct one of the two performances.

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Daniel Chong, a 23-year-old second-year medical student, and Sandy Hegeman, a 23-year-old second-year medical student, directed “The Little Mermaid.” Liv Trumble, a 24-year-old second-year medical student, and Becky Birnbaum, a 24-year-old second-year medical student, directed “Shrek” this year. 

There were about 25 White Coat Company members who helped with each production.

Student Government helps fund the group. Neither the directors nor members interviewed for this article knew an exact estimate of each show’s cost, but most costumes and props have been recycled during the group’s more than 20 years of performances.

Medical students often learn about the theater group during their second look, Hegeman said, which is when medical students get to tour the university after they’ve been accepted.

The theater group is also advertised at social events for students as they get acclimated to their first semester in medical school. Previous theater experience is not required to join. Members can audition for specific roles and choose which productions to participate in depending on their schedule during a given semester.

Samantha Maurice, a 24 year-old third-year medical student, served as one of White Coat Company’s directors in 2021. She joined the group after contacting Shands to learn how to get more involved with the pediatric unit.

“It was a great creative outlet for individuals to express themselves,” she said. “It also reminds [students] of why they went into medicine in the first place. It gives them an opportunity to see the smile on the kids’ faces.”

Her time with the group helped her find her “why” in medicine. Now, she’s studying to be a pediatrician to continue her work with children.

The role of the director is all-encompassing, she said. Directors work with script writers to minimize scenes, find roles for every student who wants to be involved and coordinate rehearsals based on students’ availability. Rehearsal time frames vary depending on the show.

Michael Mathelier, a 31-year-old third-year medical student, joined White Coat Company in 2020 when the group started filming its productions to avoid spreading COVID-19. He helped the group transition to a virtual platform as a videographer and editor.

Mathelier began to appreciate art more during his years as an undergraduate student from Spring 2013 until Fall 2014, he said. In 2014 he joined Club Creole, an association for Haitian and Creole students at UF. For two and half years, he served as the choreographer for the club’s dance group.

“When I was on the dance floor, it's like nothing else mattered,” he said. “I was on the dance floor to be myself.”

Mathelier’s experience with dance and choreography made him become a better videographer, he said. Because medical school can be academically demanding, White Coat Company allows Mathelier to maintain an outlet for self-expression and creativity.

“It’s important to not lose your hobbies,” he said. “Because at the end of the day, we still need something that anchors us to reality and that defines us outside of medicine.”

Each theater production is filmed over the course of about one weekend. Mathelier was the videographer and editor for “Frozen,” “Moana,” “Tangled” and “Monsters Inc.” He said it takes about a week for the videos to be edited after filming.

Although White Coat Company has returned to live stage production at Shands Hospital, the group will continue to record performances to post on YouTube.

The latest performance of “The Little Mermaid” is still being edited and will likely be posted sometime in May, said Sally Lu, a 24-year-old first-year medical student. 

White Coat Company aligns with Lu’s interest in pursuing a career in pediatrics. She was a volunteer for Child Life during her time as an undergraduate student in Baltimore, Maryland. Child Life is dedicated to helping families cope with the stress of hospitalization. When Lu heard about White Coat Company during her orientation for the medical school, she decided to join the group to continue her work with children.

“I'm a huge theater nerd,” she said. “Not very good at acting, but I do a lot of background stuff.”

Lu helps make props, design costumes and filming. She stepped in to play Flotsam, one of the villainous moray eels in “The Little Mermaid,” when the main actor couldn’t be there for the performance.

“It's my favorite thing that I've done to UF so far,” she said. “We have a lot of silly moments.”

For Lu, White Coat Company not only helped bridge a connection between medical students and children at Shands Hospital, but it also allowed her to build connections with upperclassmen.

“I think because of COVID it's been really hard for our medical classes to integrate and get to know each other,” she said. “I met all the second years that I know through White Coat Company, so I'm so grateful for that. They've offered me so much help and guidance.”

Shawn Diertl, a 26-year-old third-year medical student, was an actor during his first and second year with White Coat Company and has repeatedly been cast as the villain, including Hans in “Frozen.”

“I think in every production I've been in I've either been in jail or dead,” he said. “It was really fun to play the villain. All the kids hate the villain, and I can deal with it.”

Diertl also served as a White Coat Company director when the group made the decision to start filming their performances during the pandemic. The transition to filming performances for three years was a test of adaptability and problem-solving.

“As medical students, we're kind of a perfectionist group,” he said. “We like everything to go our way and everything to go right the first time. I think for us it's a relaxing moment being like, ‘Hey, sometimes things don't go right all the time.’”

Above all, White Coat Company brings some cheer and lightheartedness to foreign and often frightful experiences that hospitalized children face, Diertl said.

“If you can't get a Disney movie through the doors and into your room, we can bring that to them,” he said. “You'd be surprised how a little smile can make a kid feel.”

Contact Sophia at sbailly@alligator.org. Follow her on Twitter @sophia_bailly.

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Sophia Bailly

Sophia Bailly is a second-year journalism major and covers politics for the enterprise desk. Some of her favorite things include The Beatles, croissants and Agatha Christie books. When she's not writing stories she's either reading or going for a run.


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