Now the symptoms of a cold are pretty easy to diagnose, but recognizing the symptoms of grief can be trickier. Dr. Steven Wartman initially missed those signs in his mom.

Dr. STEVEN WARTMAN (President, Association of Academic Health Centers): Shortly after my dad passed away 14 years ago, my mom began visiting the doctor more often. She's turning 89 soon and lives alone in an apartment in Philadelphia. I'm a doctor and her oldest son, but live in Washington.

She began to call more often too, with requests to find a doctor, call a doctor, get her an appointment, and even cancel an appointment. Mom is a very dynamic and active person and is in reasonably good health. Yet she was suddenly seeing an endless progression of specialists, including cardiologists, neurologists, ophthalmologists, gynecologists, urologists, otolaryngologists, and gastroenterologists.

The truth is mom does have an assortment of medical problems - some serious, some not. But she often rejected much of the advice these physicians gave her. Basically if she didn't hear what she wanted to hear, then off she went in frustration to another doctor. I was frustrated too.

Then last year mom fell and broke her nose while running to catch a bus. I took her to see a well-known ear, nose and throat specialist. After he pronounced her to be doing well, my mother suddenly announced that she wanted a nose job to fix the almost imperceptible bump the fall had caused. They physician was taken aback, as was I.

Mom, I said, do you realize what a nose job involves? I don't like this looks, she replied. Finally after much back and forth, I told her I couldn't recommend she have that kind of surgery for so minor a problem given the risks of general anesthesia.

Suddenly I realized that my mother had become a kind of professional patient. In part, she was using doctors to fill in the hole of her life created by the deaths of her dad, her dear older brother, and other relatives and friends. Then it occurred to me in one of those rare moments of insight and revelation, she could do this professionally.

I knew that medical schools hired people to play patients in order to teach students basic examination and communication skills. They are called standardized patients and are given a character and a script to follow. Since my mom has always been a bit of a thespian, I called a colleague at Thomas Jefferson Medical College, which is not far from where my mother lives, and found out they were interviewing prospective candidates.

With a bit of trepidation, my mother took the bus to the school for the interview. Eventually she was hired and became excited about getting back to work. Soon mom was tackling the various roles she would play - a patient with heart failure, a patient with joint pain, a patient with lung cancer.

She's amazed at the amount of material medical students need to learn. She notices how nervous they are and she often tells them - smile and lighten up. At nearly 89, my mother has started a late-life mini-career and calls herself an actress-patient. Now, instead of dwelling on death and disability, she feels she has a purpose and mission to fulfill. Besides, she says, the pay is good.

INSKEEP: That's Dr. Steven Wartman, president of the Association of Academic Health Centers in Washington, D.C.

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