‘Mercy Killers’ performance prompts discussion on healthcare flaws


With nothing but a folding chair, a table and an overhead light, Michael Milligan gave a highly emotional performance in his one-man show, “Mercy Killers,” at Zoellner Arts Center Friday night.

“Mercy Killers” is the story of an all-American man whose wife’s cancer diagnosis drastically changes his life. After a three-and-a-half-year battle with hospitals, insurance companies, bankers, mortgage brokers, experimental surgeries and a number of other struggles, Joe finds himself left damaged and abandoned by the country he once so deeply loved.

Once a hardworking, devoted American, Joe goes from listening to and supporting the ideas of conservative Americans like Rush Limbaugh to feeling like the only honest man in a dishonest country. Joe expresses the way he feels cheated by his government and its officials as he says, “I wonder if all their wives had cancer, too.”

“You have these two people whose dedication to each other is so complete and so pure, and yet they were alone in all of it so completely,” said Alan Snyder, vice president for research, as he described the horrible reality all audience members were forced to face during the play.

“Mercy Killers” sheds light on the flaws of the American healthcare system, as even the hardest-working middle class citizens are devastated by medical bills they cannot afford to pay. As Joe points out, “the bills are almost as scary as the surgeries.”

“It is a flawed system, and we created it,” Milligan said.

After the show, a panel consisting of Milligan; Snyder; University Chaplain and Professor of Religious Studies Lloyd Steffen; and Joe Brookes, who served as a healthcare representative, engaged in a Q&A with the audience. Questions regarding issues such as healthcare; physician-assisted suicide; the US government; the capabilities of lobbyists; and, of course, the play itself, arose from the audience.

“A ‘mercy killer’ could be someone who kills mercy…could be an insurance claim…or maybe we are the mercy killers, as we know the system but are (too) complacent to change it,” Milligan said in response to an audience member’s curiosity about the title he chose for his piece.

Milligan shared stories about his past relationships with chronically ill individuals, as well as about his own medical experiences. During a three-month period during which Milligan wasn’t covered by insurance, he began passing kidney stones, but believed he was experiencing kidney failure. He was forced to choose between risking a potential three to five days to live with a five percent mortality rate or spending every cent to his name on a single emergency room visit. He was forced to choose the former, and it was from this experience that Milligan drew his inspiration for “Mercy Killers.”

Milligan told students that, if there was something he truly wanted them to take from the play, it was a sense of sympathy. “Sometimes life makes us callous, and I think it’s important to have that sense of sympathy toward these characters,” he said.

“The show was both heartbreaking and eye-opening,” said Ali Elkin, ’17. “I was amazed at how Mr. Milligan could make the viewer feel and experience the pain of the main character, and his performance certainly made me think twice about the healthcare system and government in our country.”

“Lehigh’s mission is to help students learn how to think differently,” said Dr. Silagh White, director of Arts Engagement and Community Cultural Affairs. “Zoellner invites artists that support that effort. We’re delighted when students challenge themselves by embracing art experiences, especially the challenging ones. It’s in taking these leaps that help students confront tough issues and grow.”

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