June 26, 2008 -- Tonight marked the premiere episode of the six-part ABC News documentary "Hopkins," about the renowned Baltimore hospital. The series is the work of Terence Wrong, who did the comparable 2000 series "Hopkins 24/7." Both series are exercises in physician glorification, constantly reinforcing the false impression that only physicians matter in hospitals. Mr. Wrong's new series is more focused on the residents, and it is plainly patterned after ABC's popular drama "Grey's Anatomy," which it follows in the ABC Thursday schedule. In fact, as a documentary, "Hopkins" is "Grey's Anatomy"--more realistic dialogue, but the same obsession with physicians' work and personal lives, and as a result, the same narrow and distorted view of hospital care. No nurses were clearly identified in the premiere, though we think that one woman who briefly gave basic information to the wife of a vasectomy reversal patient was probably a nurse. The ABC "Hopkins" website's 22 "Doctor Profiles" actually include two pediatric transport nurses, along with 20 physicians and medical students. The video clip for one nurse is about her night out drinking wine with other nurses. But in the 1 ½ minute video clip for the other profiled nurse, several nurses actually get the chance to show some expertise in trying to resuscitate a patient--genuinely impressive. If these two clips air, they will comprise about 1/90 of the series. But wait, that's not all--previews for the second episode suggest that one resident will also explain why "dating nurses is very tricky"!
The ABC News web site says that "Hopkins" "delves even deeper into the world of caregivers" at the hospital than "Hopkins 24/7" did. That does not seem to mean going much "deeper" into the work of the great majority of Johns Hopkins "caregivers," who are not physicians, but just looking more closely at physicians' personal lives. Even so, two of the 22 profiles in the web site's "Doctor Profiles" section are about pediatric transport nurses! Neither has a doctorate, but we wouldn't want to change the section title to something more general, which might confuse people about who really matters. One nurse is commendably listed as having a BSN and an MPH. Her sole web video is "Night Out with the Nurses," about how the transport team goes out and drinks wine to relieve stress. But the other nurse's video, "Medical Team Fights to Save a Life," shows us just that--and in it, nurses display leadership and expertise and do most of the work! If these scenes air, almost 3 of the series' roughly 270 minutes will be devoted mostly to nurses.
TV Guide's preview piece on "Hopkins" went so far as to call the show the "real Grey's Anatomy," and to actually line three of the profiled physicians up against their supposed "Grey's" counterparts. The only mention of nurses in that story was in the profile of an attractive cardiothoracic surgery fellow. We learn that the surgeon is someone "the Hopkins nurses say looks like McSteamy," a hunky surgeon character on "Grey's," who is not to be confused with the even hotter "McDreamy." The nurses' main role, evidently, is to help viewers understand the far more interesting physicians--just like on "Grey's"!
The first episode of "Hopkins" profiles three physicians: a neurosurgeon who entered the U.S. illegally from Mexico 20 years ago, the first female urology attending at Hopkins, and the cardiothoracic surgery fellow. The cameras follow the physicians around, and the physicians describe their past and current lives, the basic nature of their work, and what is going on with their cases. The neurosurgeon's life is a bit of a Horatio Alger story, as he overcame great obstacles to become (we are informed) one of the nation's top four neurosurgeons. The urologist handles touchy issues of male health with aplomb, and in really high heels. And the cardiothoracic fellow performs procedures even as he tells us, again and again, that the oppressive hours are endangering his marriage.
A few patients get some time on screen, and we do get a very basic sense of their health problems. But so far there is little context, little of the big health care picture, just a strong sense of wonder about physician achievement. The other hospital staff are bit players, providing quiet support, absorbing physician requests, occasionally bumbling. Nurses are less present or active in a few clinical scenes than we would expect, notably in a scene in which the cardiothoracic surgeon inserts a chest tube, causing great pain. This is a trend in hospital documentaries. Nurses sometimes seem to have been largely or completely evacuated from clinical events and settings in which they would normally play a major role. We can only assume the nurses were told, or chose, to get out of the way of the physician drama.
Based on the first episode, "Hopkins" will deliver the same basic messages viewers have heard a thousand times: Physicians are brilliant life-saving demigods and they are increasingly diverse, but their work requires great personal sacrifice. Note we said demigods, because as on other Hollywood dramas, the physicians will display flaws that make the overall portrayals all the more persuasive.
If you want to learn something about the people of Charm City and those who labor heroically to help them through famous local institutions, try HBO's quietly wrenching "Hard Times at Douglass High." That documentary, about the state of Baltimore public schools, premiered the same day as "Hopkins." But it manages to distinguish real life from McDreamies.
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