Published April 8, 2021
Michael John Benzaia
Who knew that 15 years ago when I was walking into my ﬁrst clinical at a hospital in New York that my knowledge and medical skills would later land me on television? My emergency department experience as a radiologic and CT technologist has ensured that my portrayal of characters as an actor on The Mindy Project, Shameless, How to Get Away With Murder, and General Hospital have remained truthful. This experience has also led to medical consulting and—in the midst of a pandemic, ultimately—a pivotal role as a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) compliance oﬃcer..
Growing up in the Hudson Valley of New York, I was exposed to a variety of diﬀerent activities and pastimes. I focused a lot of my energy outside of school on the soccer ﬁeld and my local theater. When the time came to decide on a major, my mother’s oncologist gave me the opportunity to shadow his work. Seeing the compassion for his patients, something sparked within me. At that moment, I knew radiology would be the perfect ﬁt, that it would allow me to utilize both sides of my brain. Today, I get to show my empathy for others while working in a fast-paced environment, where each day presents new challenges to tackle.
Throughout all of this, I notably remember one other spark that never quite left me. I was 10 years old when my aunt Rosalie took me to see a stage performance of Hammerstein’s 1994 revival of Show Boat. I can still see myself sitting in that large seat, mesmerized by what was playing out on the wooden stage above me. I didn’t necessarily know I wanted to be an actor at that moment; I just knew that whatever this magic was I was experiencing, well, I must gain more of it.
Life continued on. I saw more shows, and I started to develop a strong connection to the arts. When it was time to get serious about my career path, I had some decisions to make. My family has always been understanding and open to allowing me to make my own life choices. Although I decided to put my love for theater on the shelf to pursue my interests in the medical ﬁeld, I knew performing would come knocking again. I just didn’t know the knock would be so loud.
Anyone who personally knows me knows that I’m a bit of an overachiever. I think it would be safe to say a high percentage of imaging professionals tend to be. Within the ﬁrst two years of working as a rad tech, I gained my CT license, my bachelor’s degree in radiological sciences, as well as an MBA. I earned the title of lead technologist, in charge of everything from patient complaints to personnel scheduling to resource allocation for the department. I was thriving and truly enjoying my career choice. In life, I’ve discovered that when something is meant for you, it will eventually ﬁnd its way to your doorstep. Our job is to just pay attention because, sometimes, it doesn’t come delivered in the package we had expected.
A friend of mine knew that I had this secret passion for performing and asked me to submit an audition tape. I speciﬁcally remember being so green that I recorded my tape from the hospital bathroom, dressed in my scrubs.
Somehow, they saw something in me and called me into the casting oﬃce for a follow-up. (I have since learned that this additional meeting is called a callback, a very good thing.) This second audition did not lead to that speciﬁc role but instead another role that was casting. That’s how I’ve seen things materialize in my life. I think it’s coming directly for right ﬁeld and then, last-minute, a line drive down the middle.
Later, I gained a scholarship to the Stella Adler Academy of Acting in Los Angeles, California. Alumni include Mark Ruﬀalo, Salma Hayek, and Benicio Del Toro. This experience changed everything for me. The way I looked at myself, others, and the world around us all would never be the same. I was able to deepen my empathy and my understanding of the human experience. During this period, I practiced hard at fully living in the moment. Experiencing a given moment was something that I was able to use in both of my careers. Too often, we are in 20 diﬀerent places in our minds. Now, when I’m with my patients, I make sure to be there fully for them. And when I’m on set, I block out everything happening around me, from sound crew movement to camera equipment lights. This ensures that I can live as my character as truthfully as humanly possible.
In several ways, my medical experience has been my secret weapon. I often ﬁnd myself on set suggesting medical corrections to the director. I’m sure many radiologists and rad techs alike can relate. We’re watching a television show, and the doctor says a brain MRI has shown him to a speciﬁc diagnosis, but he holds up a CT scan of the abdomen. We ﬁnd ourselves wanting to stand up and scream at the screen! Every time I walk onto a set as an actor, the director and medical consultant are happy because they know I understand the medical world. Casting oﬃces also feel comfortable hiring me for roles thanks to my extensive understanding of our terminology. This background has helped me book jobs not just as an actor, but also as medical consultant, ensuring that what’s being portrayed on screen is medically sound. Most recently, I have gained a newer job title: COVID-19 compliance oﬃcer.
The Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, our labor union, quickly came up with on-set safety protocols to allow productions to continue creating content without risking exposure to COVID-19. This fast action kept so many individuals working and able to survive ﬁnancially through this past year. A COVID-19 compliance oﬃcer is now mandatory for every production crew—a staple I believe will not be gone overnight, unfortunately. COVID-19 compliance oﬃcers’ tasks include everything from screening for the virus to enforcing masking and other protocols set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Whether seated behind a CT scanner or navigating the fast-paced world of television, there is no cap to what modern-day radiologic technologists can accomplish. During this unprecedented time, it is reassuring to know that when I sent in my application to x-ray school all those years ago, I made the right decision, indeed.
The opinions expressed in InPractice magazine are those of the author(s); they do not necessarily reflect the viewpoint or position of the editors, reviewers, or publisher.