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Welsh, Christopher MD; Doniger, Jeremy

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The Corner is an Emmy award–winning miniseries that portrays life in a West Baltimore neighborhood, only blocks from my office at the University of Maryland Medical Center. As an addiction psychiatrist, The Corner resonated with me because it accurately depicts the conditions that impact my patients. The residents of this neighborhood face poverty, a lack of opportunity, and the ubiquitous presence of the illicit drug trade and its associated violence. After sharing The Corner with a second-year medical student whom I mentor, we realized that this engaging production could help medical students and residents (the majority of whom have been raised in middle- or upper-class, suburban environments) gain insight into realities of life in an inner-city neighborhood plagued by drugs and poverty.

Based on the 1997 novel by David Simon and Edward Burns, The Corner: A Year In the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood, the HBO production chronicles a one-year period in the life of the McCulloughs: 15-year-old DeAndre and his parents, Fran and Gary. The central theme of the miniseries deals with addiction in the sense of how it develops and progresses and the effects it has on the characters, their friends, and the community as a whole. The director of the HBO miniseries, Charles Dutton, does an excellent job of portraying the futility of these characters’ lives and their attempts to struggle with situations that appear to be hopeless, such as poverty and other harsh realities of inner-city life found in many American cities and neighborhoods. The impact of the drug-trade economy, as well as the resultant tension and violence among the drug dealers, drug users, nonusing residents, and law enforcement personnel, create a stressful environment for everyone involved.

The Corner is shot entirely in Baltimore neighborhoods using many local actors and extras from the area. I have spoken with several of the people who are portrayed in the miniseries, and they have told me that it accurately reflects the circumstances of their lives. The cinema vérité, which gives the film a docudrama aesthetic, draws viewers into this world and helps them feel as though they are experiencing the obstacles of each character. It enables the viewer to empathize, rather than sympathize, with the characters. By watching The Corner, students are better able to appreciate their patients’ difficulties in coping with their various medical and nonmedical problems; they learn that they need to take these circumstances into account as they work with patients. They are also better able to understand the “attraction” of dealing and using drugs or prostituting when the situation offers a person very few other options.

At the University of Maryland School of Medicine, we have used The Corner as a teaching tool. Psychiatry residents and third-year medical students, during their one-month rotation on the hospital's addiction service, have watched this miniseries and shared their impressions with a faculty member. In addition, interested first- and second-year students, who were recruited via e-mail, attended a series of biweekly lunchtime screenings of individual episodes followed by a discussion. These sessions proved to be very popular and generated interesting dialogue. Students have remarked that they were surprised how strongly they empathized with the characters. Although this production takes place in Baltimore, students have suggested that a screening of The Corner would be valuable for students in other medical schools. In the words of Charles S. Dutton, “this film is a true story of men, women, and children living in the drug trade; their voices are too-rarely heard.” By exposing medical students and residents to The Corner, medical educators can help these voices to be heard by a group who can truly benefit from hearing them.

Christopher Welsh, MD

Jeremy Doniger

© 2004 Association of American Medical Colleges