Parts and Players

 

“The suddenness and the fierceness of death stunned and shocked me.”

These words jumped out at me the first time I read Susan Frith’s cover story on the University’s medical-assistance program in Botswana, where an estimated one-in-three people aged 15-49 is infected with HIV. The speaker, a young doctor named Jason Kessler, was describing the experience of watching a man die before his eyes—the patient’s terrible groans, his own sense of horror and helplessness—in a medical environment far removed from a state-of-the-art hospital like HUP.

Kessler is one of the Penn doctors, medical students, nurses, and others whose stories illuminate “Prognosis Botswana.” Susan also includes the voices of local doctors working alongside their Penn counterparts in the wards as well as faculty at the University of Botswana who work on AIDS-related issues. What emerges is a vivid portrait of the program’s immense challenges and hopeful progress, one which is all the more remarkable since Susan reported it all from her home base in Kissimmee, Florida, working by phone and email.

Growing from a single limited effort, the program has expanded to involve numerous individuals—including, for the first time this spring, Penn undergraduates—and several schools. Evidence indicates that it has helped improve both professional standards and patient outcomes in Botswana’s hospitals and clinics. While Penn is far from alone in the effort, “We’re doing our part,” says Program Director Harvey Friedman.

For young medical professionals like Kessler, their time in Botswana is likely to stand as a profound lesson about the limits and the promise of modern medicine, and the sustaining power of hope for both patients and practitioners. Recalling another man, who doctors were able to help, Kessler told Susan, “I realized that every so often, we are going to alter the course of the epidemic in a young person’s life.”

Wendy Steiner is no stranger to wildly ambitious, even quixotic projects. The Penn English professor is also the founding director of the Penn Humanities Forum, an organization that each year attempts to get its intellectual arms around imposingly big-picture topics (like next year’s “Origins,” for example). In her spare time, though, Steiner has hatched a scheme perhaps even more difficult to realize—to create a full-length animated opera, loosely based on the “Wife of Bath’s Tale” from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, which takes as its subject the thorny question, “What do women want?”

Readers whose memory of the original tale may be hazy can get a refresher in “The Wife, the Lady, and the Book of Dames,” by senior editor Samuel Hughes, as well as learn about the changes Steiner’s witty libretto rings on the story, which includes appearances by Sigmund Freud and Eliza Doolittle, among many others.

Steiner assembled a team—a composer, illustrator, and animators—who together crafted a 7-minute pilot that was screened at the Institute for Contemporary Art last summer and wowed them at another showing before an audience of international scholars at the New Chaucer Society meeting. All that she needs now is the money to make a full-length version.

Finally, a fond farewell to Bob Alig C’84 WG’87, who is leaving Penn after nearly six years as assistant vice president for alumni relations, a post which includes serving as publisher of the Gazette. There’s a story about him in this issue’s “Gazetteer” section. Here I’ll just say that we are sorry to see him go, and wish him all the best in the future.

—John Prendergast C’80

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