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Healthy dose of the stage bug

Healthy dose of the stage bug

April 15th, 2013 in News

Osvaldo "Cos" Acosta, 53, is a Medical Director of Pain Services at Harry S Truman Memorial Veterans' Hospital.

When Osvaldo "Cos" Acosta was 13, he would run away from his home in Queens, New York City, to camp in the Catskills with his friends.

His mother was a "strong matriarch," he said, and he would call home to tell her where he was, but she didn't stop him from leaving.

"I've been working full time since I was 13 years old," he said, saying he figured his hard work gave him the right to make his own decisions.

That first job was collating papers in a printing shop. Today Acosta serves as the medical director of pain services at Harry S Truman Memorial Veterans' Hospital.

Although medicine might be his vocation, playwriting is his avocation. Acosta has been able to turn many of his life experiences into interesting short plays that reach his audience's emotions.

Acosta grew up close to - if not on - the mean streets of New York City. Home to some 200,000 people, Jamaica - a neighborhood in the NYC borough of Queens - is mostly black, with sizable Hispanic, Asian and white populations.

"It's where rapping evolved," Acosta said.

The shop where he worked often printed flyers for the artists' club appearances. Although Acosta was invited to go, he didn't. "I was smart and not that brave," he said.

Instead of clubbing and gangbanging, Acosta earned his licensed practical nursing certification while enrolled at Hillcrest High School, an unusual choice for a boy at the time.

"I saw it as a way out of my environment, and a way into medicine, eventually," he said.

The idea to become a doctor was planted early in life when his kindergarten teacher innocuously told his mother: "His handwriting is so bad, he better become a doctor."

"It stuck in my head," he said.

After graduating from Hillcrest, he enrolled in a nursing program before spending time in the Army. Then he earned a medical degree, specializing in physical medicine and rehabilitation during his internship and residency.

Today he uses his degree to assist veterans of all ages who have chronic pain. He also helps those who have suffered strokes, amputations and other injuries that affect how their muscles, bones and nerves work together. About 50 percent of his patients are Vietnam War vets, but he's also seeing younger clients who fought in Afghanistan and Iraq.

It's a tough job, because many of them believe narcotics will cure their pain. Instead he tries to use a variety of techniques to address their pain, including asking them to try core strengthening exercises.

"I try to find out the underlying cause of their pain and relieve that so they no longer need the medication," he said. "I feel like Sherlock Holmes. I start evaluating them as soon as they walk in."

During his career, Acosta has hopscotched across the United States, spending time in Indiana before settling in Jefferson City about nine years ago to work at Capital Region Medical Center. He left to go to the VA after being aggressively recruited by that organization.

Acosta came to the theater relatively late in life. His first experience happened in Indiana when his stepdaughter wanted to audition, and she goaded him into joining her.

"I got one of the leads," he said.

After that he performed in 22 plays over seven years.

"I was addicted to the laughter," he said. "It got into my blood that I wanted to be on stage forever."

In Jefferson City, audiences may have seen him in plays such as: "Take Me Out," "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," "The Odd Couple" and "Twelve Angry Men."

He's also written seven plays. Four of those plays were 10-minute pieces. Three more were expanded and combined into one longer show for Scene One Theatre.

He's been honored for his work by the Missouri Arts Council; one of his works was selected as one of the 10 best plays out of 300 submissions. That piece, which explored the loneliness of an older man, was based on an experience he had as a kid at Halloween.

He said: "That's when it really hit me that with a story you could really evoke a lot of emotion."

He's attracted to live performances because of the unexpected things that can happen and the adrenaline rush.

One time in a production of "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying," the female lead didn't realize there was a matinee. Cos said he found himself romancing a big, fat guy in a towel until the actress was rousted.

For a moment, Acosta broke the "fourth wall" and said to the audience: "Just my luck."

"I am speechless and the audience is cracking up," he recalled.

Although he's lived in other communities across the U.S., Jefferson City has become his lifelong home, in large part because of its vibrant live theater and music communities.

"This is just the right-size pool for a fish of my caliber," he said. "The bowl fits me perfectly."