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The Brooke Ellison Story (2004)

Starring Lacey Chabert, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Vanessa Marano, John Slattery

Directed by Christopher Reeve

Screenplay by Camille Thomasson

Based upon the book by Brooke and Jean Ellison

A&E Television Networks

Rated TV-PG


Nursing rating 1 star

Rating guide:
excellent = 4 stars; good = 3 stars;
fair = 2 stars, poor = 1 star

Artistic rating 2 1/2 stars

Brooke Ellison photoThe feature film "The Brooke Ellison Story," made for the A&E cable network, was the last project of the late Christopher Reeve. Based upon Brooke and Jean Ellison's book "Miracles Happen: One Mother, One Daughter, One Journey," it tells the story of Brooke, who became a quadriplegic in l990 at age 11 after being hit by a bus. Jean, her mother, devoted much of her life to acting as her caregiver, accompanying Brooke daily to school, all the way through her graduation from Harvard, despite the massive odds against such achievement. The film is worth seeing for the inspiring story and fine acting, despite an awful portrayal of nursing.

Reeve focuses on the theme of triumph over adversity in retelling the Ellisons' story. Prior to the accident, the family is shown as a typical one. But when tragedy strikes, all must struggle mightily to cope. The actors do a fine job, all believable in their roles, particularly Ms. Mastrantonio as Brooke's mother. Brooke as a young woman is played by Lacey Chabert, while Vanessa Marano is the younger Brooke. John Slattery is Brooke's father Ed.

"The Brooke Ellison Story" has been faulted for painting an overly rosy portrait of life with paralysis. At times the film does offer a less-than-realistic portrayal of society's treatment of the disabled, and in this respect, the criticism may have some merit. For example, in one scene showing Brooke attending a class at Harvard--with her wheelchair and her mother--all the other students instantly accept her, smiling and parting like the Red Sea as they roll into the large lecture hall!

However, the movie also suggests that the Ellisons received little help, empathy or tact from health care providers, insurance companies or the school system. One senses the enormous sacrifice, effort and determination required for them to succeed, especially on the part of Jean and Brooke herself, who was not expected to survive her injuries without severe brain damage.

The characters are not altogether saintly. The tensions and frustrations mount quite subtly, as in scenes of Brooke losing patience or experiencing the loss of a first love, and of her siblings feeling resentful of the parental attention being diverted away. The viewer never stops caring for this family, and their success is as inspiring as Reeve no doubt intended. Of course, this is a subject the determined director knew firsthand.

Certainly, other fact-based films dealing with paralysis, such as "Born on the Fourth of July," about wounded Viet Nam veteran Ron Kovic, or "The Other Side of the Mountain", the story of Olympic hopeful Jill Kinmont's paralysis after a skiing accident, do more graphically depict spinal cord injury. "The Brooke Ellison Story," in contrast, emphasizes family dynamics and individual character in pursuing its theme of triumph over adversity. On that level, the film succeeds admirably. Even in the absence of Crutchfield tongs, Stryker frames, enemas and other harsh realities of quadriplegia, one gets a very real sense of the difficulty of this extreme situation.

The most troubling element of the movie, especially given its overall quality, is its shockingly bad portrayal of nursing. The nurses shown at the long term care facility where the young Brooke was a patient seem truly negligent, and their attitudes are even worse. For example, one "nurse" tells the family, "Your daughter is paralyzed, get over it!" In another scene, two nurses rush to reconnect Brooke's ventilator when it becomes detached, only to quickly leave the room afterwards, despite the frightened child's tears. This kind of conduct could be grounds for dismissal at many pediatric units. (It's certainly not a rosy view of her care.)

Perhaps this really is how the Ellisons recall the conduct of all their nurses, and certainly any profession has its less competent members. However, it's a shame that the film missed so many opportunities to show the true role of nursing in the acute and rehab settings of pediatric trauma care. And many viewers may not realize how anomalous the poor care shown here is.

The movie also suggests that nurses (good or bad) were not central to Brooke's care. For the most part, her nurses are shown, literally, in the background, no matter what else is going in the scene: sitting at the desk pushing paper, directing people to the patient's room, silently watching a monitor. Nurses appear to be a part of the furniture, while the physicians are always active, vocal and in the forefront, interpreting x-rays, instructing medical students, and so on. Only one scene depicts accurately what nurses actually do, as a nurse demonstrates to Jean the care Brooke will require at home.

"The Brooke Ellison Story" is a powerful look at how one family has handled paralysis. It's a shame that it shows nurses as a minor part of the problem, when in many cases they're a significant part of the solution.

Reviewed by Suzanne Daniluk, RN
Reviewed January 14, 2004

The views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of the Board Members or Advisory Panel of The Truth About Nursing.

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