City Journal: Feigning Illness

When local med students need a guinea pig, they get Dan Bolton, a stage actor who can fake broken bones, wrenched backs, and indigestion like you wouldn’t believe.

The 40-year-old Bolton has done musical and traditional theater on stages around the region, but some of his best performances in the past three years have taken place at Boston University Medical School, where he plays the part of a sick patient for doctors in training. “My first day on the job, I was terrified,” he says. “I had no idea what these kids might accidentally do to me.”

Anybody can fake a cough, but Bolton’s experience as a thespian (he studied drama at Boston College) helps him really get into character. He has to memorize a specific, detailed family history and master a list of symptoms. “It’s like learning lines for a play,” he says. “Once you really know the part, you can start improvising and having some fun.”

Getting poked and prodded all the time can be a grind. To stay fresh, Bolton gives his sickly characters different personas. “Sometimes I’m the uncooperative guy who just wants to go back to work,” he says. “Sometimes I’m the drama queen who’s in too much pain to sit on the exam table. That one really freaks them out.”

Early on, he was tempted to lend some of the slower med students a hand. “I’d give them more information than a real patient would, just to lead them down the right path,” he says. “But I’ve learned it’s more educational if you just let them find their own way.”

Bolton’s bad-back routine (his personal fave) elicits a baffling array of treatment ecommendations. “I’ve been told to ice it, to heat it, to sleep on a board, to stay home, to go back to work,” he says. “If I actually do hurt my back someday, I’ll have no idea what I’m supposed to do.”

The key to making any illness seem real, Bolton says, is to react quickly. As soon as the med students touch him, Bolton lets them know how much it hurts—which eventually takes a toll of its own. “Moaning and groaning like you’re in pain isn’t as easy as it looks,” he says. “After a couple of sessions, I’m exhausted.”