When Zal Press was 29 years old, he went to the hospital with a pain in his gut that felt like he had “a cat trapped in [his] stomach trying to claw its way out.
“A doctor came up to me as I was lying in the hospital and he says to me, ‘Mr. Press, you have a serious illness. You have Crohn’s disease,’ ” Press recalls. “I couldn’t even spell Crohn’s, I had never heard of it. All I wanted was a pill so I could get on with my life.”
Thirty years later, Press has moved on with his life, but he certainly hasn’t forgotten about Crohn’s. About two years ago, he set off on a journey to try and get involved in changing the Canadian health-care system and the way patients perceive chronic illness.
“I became attracted to patient advocacy and patient empowerment and this whole new movement of this educated, informed, Internet-aware patient who’s engaged in their own health care,” he says.
Last year, after giving up a successful art business, Press started Patient Commando, a theatre production company that uses storytelling and humour to empower patients. The company’s debut production is a performance of Cancer Can’t Dance Like This, Daniel Stolfi’s comedic dramatization of his two-year battle with cancer.
The production has been staged in Toronto and Montreal since its premier at Second City last May. To date, Cancer Can’t Dance Like This has raised more than $60,000 for cancer research.
“Patient Commando is a great organization that is all about putting the power of health in the hands of the patient,” Stolfi says. “Many times, people dealing with illness are led blindly through treatment with little say in the process. … By sharing stories that come directly from the mouth of the patient we can gain a much better understanding of what a patient is going through and how they are feeling in all aspects of treatment.”
Patient Commando is the only entertainment company in Canada producing theatre, workshops, video and speaking presentations with a focus on the patient experience.
“Everyone has a story to tell,” Press says. “And the very act of telling our stories makes us feel good. And when the stories are funny, when they come from a place of honesty and they’re well-told, they have the power to change people’s lives.”
Dr. Sandy Buchman, a palliative care physician and president-elect of the College of Family Physicians of Canada, agrees, and suggests that healthcare providers will also stand to benefit from this kind of endeavor.
“Often the doctor-patient relationship is two-dimensional,” Buchman says. “We are dealing only with the disease rather than the whole illness experience. … It’s beneficial for us to get a fresh perspective and lighten our own lives, too.”
Cancer Can’t Dance Like This runs May 12 at Toronto’s Glenn Gould Studio. For more information, visit patientcommando.com.
– Rebecca Spence, National Post