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    Realizing the fullness of life

    We physicians can get caught up in minutiae of medical practice


    First performed in 1938, the Thornton Wilder play “Our Town” received the Pulitzer Prize for drama. The setting is a small town in New England, and instead of props, the actors use pantomime to act out their roles, like cooking imaginary meals in invisible kitchens and pretending to deliver bottles of milk from a transparent van drawn by a non-existent horse. As a result, our focus is entirely on the characters and their interactions, with everything orchestrated by a character known as “The Stage Manager.”

    In Act I, baseball star George Gibbs and pretty Emily Webb are two schoolmates who begin to feel affection for each other. George’s mother, Julia, speaks about her dream of traveling to Paris.

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    In Act II, 3 years later, we learn that love has bloomed. George decides to forego college so he can marry Emily, become a farmer, and devote himself to being a responsible husband. George and Emily are married, excited about the life ahead of them.

    In Act III, 9 years later, Emily, who has died in childbirth, is about to be buried. While her funeral service is conducted, Emily speaks with the dead souls who inhabit the cemetery. Among them is her mother-in-law, Julia, who never made it to Paris, having assumed there would be always be a time in the future to make the trip.

    How fleeting is life

    Emily misses her life and—against the advice of the dead souls in the cemetery—decides to relive part of it. She steps back in time to the morning of her twelfth birthday, observing her young and beautiful parents and the hustle and bustle among the living characters. The experience is too painful for her, as she appreciates how fleeting is life and that it is not valued adequately by the living.

    Peter J. McDonnell, MD
    He is director of The Wilmer Eye Institute, The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, and chief medical editor of ...

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