Episode 30- Acting Sick with Vanessa Ahern

Remember when Joey Tribiani was plastered all over the subway as the face of VD on Friends? His big break led to a definite downswing in his dating prospects. Did you know that there are actually people out there who build entire careers voluntarily pretending they have a whole slew of embarrassing and not so embarrassing ailments as Standardized Patients?

Vanessa Ahern is one such person. Ahern, a respected health writer, has also built up a steady stream of gigs working with hospitals and medical schools roleplaying symptoms and looking for a diagnosis.

She wears a hospital gown to work and everything. Although during downtime, she and her colleagues can often be spotted hanging out in a waiting room in their own bathrobes and fuzzy slippers.

Standardized Patients or SPs are given a backstory and a list of symptoms they must memorize. The backstory can include anything from a career to a particular family structure depending on what they are “in for.” The even get a new name. Vanessa finds her job fascinating and takes her commitment to her role seriously. She doesn’t, however, get to go rogue and create any sort of soap opera level intrigue to dive in to and derail the interaction.

The medical students spend time with Vanessa asking questions about what her character has been experiencing. They may do some vital checks and order exams or testing but no worries there’s no actual poking or prodding involved.

Vanessa never knows what her actual diagnosis will be until after she meets with the doctor but over the years, she’s definitely been able to begin to know some of the signs. We asked her if she and her fellow SPs compare notes while they’re waiting and what’s been her favorite disease to role play.

We also tried to get her to spill on if she’s ever seen a medical student or doctor that she just knew in her gut should probably pursue another field. Fortunately, she said no.

We wondered if she found herself ever analyzing her real-life doctor and their Q&A skills when she goes in for a check-up.

As crazy as this job may sound, it’s actually not that uncommon and positions are offered throughout the country at medical schools and teaching hospitals. She said that some level of acting ability tends to be an advantage and a number of SPs are actually full-time actors.

Vanessa was really fun to talk to and shared a lot of great info. We found her after reading her 2017 article I Fake Sick for a Living. It’s a super entertaining read, and we knew immediately we needed to talk to her to learn more. Lucky for us, she was more than willing to indulge our ridiculousness and questions.

If you’re someone who has always enjoyed channeling your inner Ferris Bueller calling in sick or playing hooky from work with great style, this might be a job for you. Of course, the issue then becomes how do you call in sick to being sick?


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