Student directs play about chronic health conditions


The arts have served as a reflecting pool for humanity for thousands of years, casting back images of mankind’s experiences and observations about life. Mary Plant-Thomas dipped her toe into this pool with her presentation of “To Be Diagnosed,” a play recently performed at UCSD’s Arthur Wagner Theatre.

Based on a series of interviews conducted with individuals affected by various medical conditions such as diabetes, fibromyalgia, scleroderma and irritable bowel disease, as well as Plant-Thomas’ own experience with Crohn’s disease, “To Be Diagnosed” offered the audience in insider’s view on what it is like to live with chronic health issues. The goal of the play, which ran Jan. 29-30 as her major project in directing class, was to entertain, educate and raise awareness about the impact of such diseases.

“Society doesn’t know how to talk to people who have to live with these conditions,” Plant-Thomas said. “I feel like (the issue) is underrepresented.”

The play was written by Emily Bookstein, Plant-Thomas’ childhood friend and fellow theater buff. The two met while students at Torrey Pines Elementary School. In fifth grade, they co-founded the Cranbrook Court Theatre Company. The neighborhood troupe went on to produce a stage show every year until the girls were in high school.

Plant-Thomas, 22, grew up in La Jolla with parents Julie Plant and Peter Thomas and sister Tess. She attended Muirlands Middle School and graduated from La Jolla High. Her first two years of university studies were completed at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. The sudden onset of severe symptoms related to her Crohn’s disease forced Plant-Thomas to return home, at which time she transferred to the theater program at UCSD.

It was that experience that drove home the need for Plant-Thomas to speak out on the topic of living with a chronic health condition.

“I felt like a lot of what I was fighting against was the mentality that even if you’re sick you can go out there and climb mountains,” Plant-Thomas said. “It’s not that you can’t do anything, but you have to make balanced decisions and be realistic about it.”

Part of the process of producing “To Be Diagnosed” for Plant-Thomas was opening up about her condition and her daily challenges. “I was expecting it to be a much more scary experience,” she admitted.

A form of inflammatory bowel disease, Crohn’s may affect the gastrointestinal tract from the mouth to the rectum, resulting in symptoms with what Plant-Thomas calls a “gross-out” factor. Some of the issues she deals with include frequent trips to the bathroom, dietary restrictions, severe abdominal pain and loss of energy. Flare-ups are unpredictable, but may be triggered by stress.

That lack of predictability, the inability to manage the disease, not having any control over one’s own body, top the lists of frustrations for many individuals diagnosed with a chronic health condition.

“You don’t know why you’re sick one day and not the next,” Plant-Thomas said, adding that many sufferers are forced to ration their energy, limiting their participation in social, professional and personal activities. “I know there’s only so much energy in a day, and I have to choose how I’m going to use it. There are ways I figure out around it.”

Another problem for people like Plant-Thomas is the “invisibility” of their disease. To casual acquaintances, she appears healthy, so when she becomes ill, sometimes she feels like people think she is lying.

Part of the problem, she said, is how the media glamorizes individuals who “overcome” chronic diseases, as if the condition and all of its complications suddenly evaporate from life. While viewers may see a man with a chronic disease make it to the top of Mount Everest, what they don’t see are the physical, emotional and psychological consequences of that climb. “It’s not something you can brush past,” Plant-Thomas said. “It influences decisions you make every single day.”

Uncertain of what the future holds for her but committed to pursuing work in theater, Plant-Thomas said this production has been especially meaningful and liberating.

“I was hopeful that people would come out of the show understanding more about what I deal with on a day-to-day basis,” Plant-Thomas said. “That was very cool that I got that across to some people.”