A Beautiful Collaboration Brings About a Beautiful Chaos
Medical students bring the Lion King to life for students who are blind and visually impaired
Reviewed by: Pete Rochat
Written by: Rocky Epstein
Broadway shows arrive each season to entertain thousands of Austinites, but for people experiencing blindness or vision impairment, a musical or play may seem out of reach. But for 30 students at the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired (TSBVI), the bright lights of Broadway have become a source of inspiration. And it was all due to one idea, the dogged determination of four medical students, and the collaboration of an incredible campus community.
Pete is a first-year medical student at Dell Medical School (DMS). For the past four years, he has been volunteering at the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired. He began volunteering at TSBVI at the suggestion of the Department of Ophthalmology Chair Jane Edmond, MD whom Pete met and mentored under as a pre-med student at The University of Texas at Austin. When Pete talks about the students, he immediately starts to smile and excitedly shares his interactions helping them with labs and other school projects. “I’ve been volunteering with them, and it’s quite beautifully paralleled with my interest in medicine, of course, as an aspiring ophthalmologist, to be able to serve the community that I hope to one day serve as patients. I love going back. It’s the highlight of my week, nearly every week.” This past year Pete recruited 4 other medical students who are part of the DMS Ophthalmology Interest Group to volunteer at the school. And, it is this group of five, Pete Rochat, Saima Khan, Soman Khan, Jared Moon, and Cole Martin, that brought a community together to inspire 30 children.
What started as an email
In January, UT Health Austin Mitchel and Shannon Wong Eye Institute ophthalmologist Eileen Bowden, MD sent an email to the members of the Ophthalmology Interest Group, many of whom had just started volunteering. The group had been brainstorming ways to collaborate with TSBVI when Dr. Bowden sent an email with the subject, “Partnership Idea with Texas School for the Blind” and gave the group the idea to explore taking the students to experience the Lion King. The idea persisted in Pete’s brain raising logistical questions like, “how can we make this happen,” “where do we start,” and “how do we raise money?”
Discussions with TSBVI began with their directors, who were thrilled at the idea and mentioned, coincidentally, that the students were preparing for their own production of “Disney’s The Lion King Junior”. Pete immediately reached out to the Bass Concert Hall, enlisted the help of Tim Rogers and Brenda Sims at Texas Performing Arts (TPA), and pitched the idea of bringing blind and visually impaired students to the show. The interest group worked with TPA to contact Disney on Broadway about discount tickets and to make sure listening devices and other accommodations were made available for the students. Saima, Soman, Jared, and Cole, put together a HornRaiser (UT’s fundraising platform for special projects) and in a matter of a few weeks raised $900 to cover the cost of tickets. After anxious weeks of waiting and flurries of emails, good news, at last, the tickets were being offered at $14 each and the students would be seated in the center orchestra to fully absorb the experience.
A Night to Remember
Transportation was coordinated, tickets were purchased, and 30 very excited students arrived at the Bass Concert Hall. When asked to describe the evening Pete
responded with “it was a beautiful chaos,” from parking to arrival, canes clattering on the walkways, to ushering the students into the concert hall, finding their seats, and listening to the students whisper the lines that they themselves would repeat at their own performance, from beginning to end it was indeed an evening to remember. He recalls that when they were asked prior to the show what they looked forward to hearing most, the students replied, “Hakuna Matata” and “Can you Feel the Love Tonight.” Following the performance, when asked again, they replied, “all of it, we loved it all.” Pete noticed the students taking notes about what they would bring to their own performances the following week. From the way a particular note was played to the way a character shook their head, to the nuances of the way a line was said, these students were inspired by the actors, music, and stage. He said, “it was so heartwarming to watch them be so captivated by something they know so well.”
Texas Performing Arts worked side-by-side with the medical students to help make the performance a reality. In addition to the listening devices, Tim and Brenda arranged for a live audio description to narrate the action on stage so the students could “see” the details of the show, such as where a character stood, details of the set, and much more. As Pete states, “This is also an amazing story about making theater accessible for blind and visually impaired people. The theater is a place for them too. At the end of the performance, it was clear that their visual impairments did not hinder their ability to enjoy the show one bit. They walked out of the theater with the same beaming smiles on their faces, singing ‘Hakuna Matata’, just like everyone else.”
Teamwork really does make the dream work
When asked how this collaboration happened, Pete is quick to point out that it began with what he is learning as a Dell Med student. From the beginning, teamwork and collaboration are impressed upon the medical students as part of their core curriculum.
“From the moment we step into Dell Medical School, it’s all about team-focused care. We have so much emphasis on teamwork, working together with our colleagues here in the medical school, but also inter-professionally, we are encouraged to reach across boundaries, across professions, and across disciplines,” he says. He marvels at how the whole experience came together through The University’s resources: Dell Med students, Dr. Bowden’s email, Texas Performing Art’s willingness to assist, and the experience of a live performance in the Bass Concert Hall, all came together to make a very special night for some very special students. “Everybody’s very collaborative, but to have the connections so readily available here, just in the nature of the community, I can’t imagine this happening anywhere else. This is so unique to Austin, it’s so unique to Dell and The University of Texas at Austin.”
The Next Act
Pete continues to volunteer at TSBVI and hopes to recruit even more volunteers in the future, including from the newly implemented ophthalmology residency program. When asked what other medical students could do to make a difference, he suggests using their specialty interests to find your patients, discover their interests and passions and what drives that community, and immerse yourself in it. He says, “you’ll get to know them and you’ll learn to love them. And when you come together with a group of medical students and doctors you can do so much good for whatever community you hope to serve. So, identify, immerse and then act.”