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Trading Her Stethoscope for a Script Helps Hospitalist Rana Tan, MD, Find Balance


When Rana Tan, MD, was a young child, she often played with dolls, dressing them up and inventing stories about them. Teachers would comment to Dr. Tan’s parents about her creativity and that she belonged on stage or behind the scenes, writing plays or movies. But her parents discouraged any profession relating to the arts, wanting a more respectable career for their daughter.

Rana Tan, MD, helps with a costume.

Rana Tan, MD, helps with a costume.

To some, there is nothing more respectable than medicine. After graduating medical school at the University California, Davis in 1990, Dr. Tan spent the next four years at Mercy Hospital in San Diego, completing a one-year internship, two years of residency, and another year of chief residency. Then from 1994 to 1997, she pursued a pulmonary and critical-care fellowship at the Medical College of Wisconsin.

After training for seven years, Dr. Tan worked in private practice in Bremerton, Wash., practicing pulmonary and critical-care medicine for the next eight years, and then joined Sound Physicians as a hospitalist in 2005 at Harrison Medical Center in Bremerton. Since 2010, she has served as its chief hospitalist.

Despite all of her education and training, Dr. Tan never forgot about her dolls or how much fun she had creating their life stories.

For years, much of her creativity had been bottled up and was ready to be unleashed. But how? The answer sat a few blocks away from Harrison: the Bremerton Community Theater. For the past 17 years, Dr. Tan has volunteered for the theater by performing in numerous plays, creating costumes and set designs, and directing more than a dozen plays for the youth theater program.

“As much as I enjoy my career, I don’t know if I could just do medicine,” says Dr. Tan, adding that acting demands her to explore a wide variety of emotions, which enables her to better understand and connect with her patients. “I’m incredibly fortunate that we have a community theater down the street and am afforded the opportunity to do all sorts of things that keep me balanced.”

Curtains Up

Back in 1999, Dr. Tan auditioned for Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, a 1976 play by Ed Graczyk about the reunion of childhood friends in drought-stricken Texas.

Rana Tan, MD, is pictured with her full cast.

Rana Tan, MD, is pictured with her full cast.

“This community theater had a very strong clique of people who acted in everything,” she says, adding that the same directors tapped the same actors for various roles. “It was very difficult to break in. I was very lucky that I was cast as Joanne in this play.”

Over the next two years, she repeatedly auditioned for various plays, but she never got so much as a thank you, let alone a callback. It seemed her acting career was over before it even started. But luck was on her side. She received an audition notice from a local director who had not volunteered at the theater for some time and didn’t have a preset agenda for casting.

“I got one of the lead parts in Rumors,” she says, referring to a Neil Simon play. “Then I was cast in more and more plays.”

Of all the roles she has performed, two are most memorable: Kate Keller in Arthur Miller’s All My Sons and Sister Aloysius in John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt: A Parable.

Dr. Tan explains that both roles spoke to her in different ways. Even though she never personally experienced the plights of the characters, she understood them, related to them, and became them on stage.

“I’m very grateful for having these two theater experiences,” she says.

Like many community theaters, Bremerton is staffed by volunteers. Out of necessity, Dr. Tan was asked to help with set design and also costuming. To boost interest in the arts and ticket sales, the theater also established a club for children between ages 6 and 18. It produced one show, but the youth program wasn’t well-organized and soon fizzled. Simultaneously, Dr. Tan wrote an adaption of Little Red Riding Hood, which revived the program and was chosen for the summer play in 2007.

Since then, she has directed 15 more plays, including Sleeping Beauty, The Little Mermaid, and A Seussified Christmas Carol. She says her favorite, however, was a spoof on the Law & Order television show called Law & Order: Fairy Tale Unit.

Confidence and Coyotes

Each play at the community theater may involve up to 50 cast members, including children.

Rana Tan, MD, performs.

Rana Tan, MD, performs.

“We have children who are incredibly shy, you can’t hear them on stage, and they run to sit next to their parents,” she says. “Sometimes, by the end of the audition process, their voices are stronger and they’re more confident because we audition in groups. By the end of the rehearsal process, they’re not clinging to their parents anymore.”

As a director, she has never yelled or raised her voice to any child actor. When she needs children to be quiet to listen to her rules or instructions, she uses a hand signal called “Quiet Coyote.” (Touch your thumb to your third and fourth fingers and raise your index finger and pinkie to resemble a coyote’s head.) She says they immediately stop talking and start listening.

One of her favorite youth theater memories happened several years ago, when one parent said that her six-year-old daughter wanted to dress up as Dr. Tan for Halloween by styling her hair in a bun, wearing glasses, and carrying a clipboard.

“Even though I may be exhausted at the end of the day, I still head straight to the theater,” Dr. Tan says, adding that her husband, Eric Spencer, a professional actor, is the theater’s technical director.

“Every heaviness that I have on my shoulders from the hospital is now gone. It resets me and puts me in a different place. For that, I will always be grateful.” TH

Carol Patton is a freelance writer in Las Vegas.

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