The play has two characters: Ruth and Friend (who is a male doctor).

Ruth is an engaging, straight-talking quadriplegic who can zip and dance with her chin-operated wheelchair and takes delight in terrorizing medical staff both physically and verbally. She wants to write poetry and is waiting for a device to make it possible for her to use a computer. She keeps developing bedsores that threaten her life and require long admissions to the hospital before they will heal. She desperately wants to live no matter what happens, as she feels that having no mind would be worse than having no body.

Friend is a male doctor with children who is ashamed of having examined her while she was unaware. Burdened with his guilt, he asks to be her “friend.” Ruth is skeptical and runs circles around him, but eventually comes to trust him and believe in his sincerity.

She makes him a witness to her advance directive to instigate all heroic measures, as she is afraid of the kindly "ethical" and cost-effective arguments not to treat the disabled. But Ruth dies horribly from sepsis, and Friend is helpless to prevent it. She never obtains the device that would have allowed her to put her poems into printed words.


This play is a striking exploration of the experience of the disabled and their mistrust of so-called ethical rhetoric that would allow a treatable illness to claim the life of someone who is otherwise content within her limitations.

Calcedonies are geological formations, which are crusty and plain on the outside and full of gem-like crystals on the inside. Ruth collects calcedonies, because they are like her.

Nisker has been writing plays since the 1990s aimed at bringing audiences to empathize with the situations of vulnerable people and promoting humanity in health policy development.


Portions appeared in CMAJ 2001 164.1: 74-75.

Primary Source

From Calcedonies to Orchids: Plays Promoting Humanity in Health Policy



Place Published





Nisker, Jeffrey A.

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