In art-imitates-life shocker, NBC's "ER" follows example of nearby real-life hospital, naming nurse as emergency services director
June 7, 2004 -- A short item in the business section of today's News Press, a Southern California paper affiliated with the Los Angeles Times, reported that nurse Debra Brown had been named emergency services director of North Glendale's Verdugo Hills Hospital. In what appeared to be an astonishing coincidence, a nurse character is elevated to the same position on tonight's special episode of NBC's popular television show "ER"--which is filmed in nearby Burbank.
Debra Brown will reportedly "oversee all of [Verdugo Hills'] emergency operations." The hospital's emergency department has recently expanded to 12 beds, and the department apparently sees about 22,000 patients each year. Ms. Brown, who was previously nurse manager for emergency services at Corona Medical Center, has been a nurse for 17 years. Though the article does not mention it, the Verdugo Hills ED appears to specialize in pediatric emergencies.
At the same time, tonight's special between-seasons episode of NBC's "ER" reveals that a significant plotline of the 2003-04 season had all been a Matrix-like delusion experienced by nurse character Abby Lockhart. The new episode opens the night after last month's season finale, in which it appeared that Lockhart had finally passed her medical board exam, after struggling through her final year of medical school for most of the season. But at the start of tonight's episode, Lockhart is shown waking up in an unfamiliar room surrounded by strange equipment, screaming at the thought of having returned to medical school and become a physician. Exactly what has happened to Lockhart is never made clear, but she is soon shown reporting for work on her first day as emergency services director of County General, the fictional Chicago hospital at which "ER" is set, with an air of relief and pride. It turns out that instead of returning to medical school, Lockhart has actually been obtaining her masters degree as an emergency trauma clinical nurse specialist. Among the pragmatic, savvy Lockhart's first acts as ED director: the imposition of a moratorium on nurses fawning over physicians for having supposedly saved patient lives all by themselves, and new restrictions on physicians performing certain critical tasks, such as triage, patient education, and defibrillation, if better-qualified nurses are available to do them.
The surprise elevation of Lockhart shocked longtime "ER" watchers. Most had assumed that it was only a matter of time before "ER" lifer John Carter, an attending physician and former boyfriend of Lockhart, would join the ranks of physicians who would ascend to the director role on the show, on which nurses have never registered as much more than skilled but peripheral assistants to the dominant physicians. One senior "ER" producer noted that it was just a coincidence that the special episode appeared on the same day as news that Ms. Brown had been named ED director at Verdugo Hills, a hospital located within minutes of the Burbank location at the which the show is filmed, and to which the show's crew has occasionally traveled for care. "We honestly didn't know," she said, "but this just confirms what we've always said: you don't have to sacrifice realism to make compelling drama."
Important Note: While the news story about Debra Brown's selection to direct emergency services at Verdugo Hills Hospital is real, the special "ER" episode described above is, unfortunately, not real. There was no such episode, and the reactions to it in the preceding paragraph are fictitious. The episode is an invention of the Center designed to highlight the gap between the reality of modern nursing and the unrealistic and damaging vision of nursing that "ER" continues to promote to its tens of millions of impressionable viewers around the world. The show's creators frequently boast of their commitment to "medical realism" and the positive real world effects they believe the show has, but they have consistently refused to consider whether their portrayal of nursing could have a comparably strong influence.
The Center has composed a model letter to those responsible for "ER" that uses the two stories above--one true, one an invention--and we are urging supporters to send the letter, or one like it, to the show. The model letter suggests that the writer was thrilled to hear of the fictitious episode on the Center's web site, but disappointed to learn that it was not real; it then briefly lays out a vision of how the show would need to change in order to reflect the reality of modern emergency departments, as it purports to. Our intention in the letter is to use the fictitious episode is an initial means to get the show's attention, and and then to let "ER"'s creators know once again how far their influential show is from the reality of modern nursing.