Wit, conflict of interest, and John Donne

Last weekend the Taylor University theater department performed Wit, a Pulitzer Prize winning play written by Margaret Edson in 1993. I had the interesting experience of being the medical consultant for the play. The main character Vivian is a professor of English literature who specializes in the Holy Sonnets of John Donne and is dying of metastatic ovarian cancer. The entire play takes place in the hospital where she is being treated by a research oncologist and his fellow with an experimental protocol.

The play is filled with ethical concerns and most of the time demonstrates how not to care for a dying patient. It is also a moving experience of watching the main character come to grips with dying. Ironically her study of Donne’s poetry about death has done little to prepare her because her focus has been on the details of the construction of his poetry and the wit the he demonstrates as he spars with great questions of life and death. She has failed to understand the reality behind what he has written.

One of the major ethical themes of the play is the conflict of interest that exists for the clinical oncologist in his dual roles as researcher and physician. He and his fellow allow their desire to obtain good research data to overshadow the needs of their patient, urging her to take part in the study for the good of research without being clear that she understands what will be involved, and pushing her to complete the entire treatment protocol with no reduction in dose even when she is suffering major adverse effects with no apparent benefit. If the two of them are seen as typical of clinical researchers (which I do not believe they are), then the play presents a very pessimistic view of whether the conflicting roles of researcher and physician can be reconciled in a positive way.

However there is a more optimistic view in the background represented by a character who is spoken about, but is not himself in the play. That character is John Donne, the one whose poetry the main character has devoted her life to studying. Donne was one of the leading intellects of his day, devoted to the search for knowledge, yet he chose to leave his position in the king’s court to be a priest. When the plague hit London he chose to stay and minister to the sick and dying in his parish rather that escaping to the safety of the countryside like most of his friends with the means to do so. It was when he was stricken with the plague and close to dying that he wrote much of the poetry that Vivian had studied throughout her career. Donne understood how to balance the quest for knowledge with a compassion for the sick and dying. The answer to Vivian’s search for meaning in her death and the answer to how balance research and caring for the needs of the sick can be found in the issues of life and death and faith that Donne addressed in his Divine Sonnets and in the life of faith he lived out. Even more they can be found in the One he wrote about in those poems and in whom he placed his faith.

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