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Saintly saints and the canonizers who canonize them

June 19, 2005 -- Stop us if you've heard this one before, but it seems that some people think of nurses as saints. Today's issue of The Age (Melbourne) included Brian Courtis' lengthy, somewhat tongue-in-cheek profile of local actress Georgie Parker, and her television character, nursing unit manager Terri Sullivan, as she departs the popular Australian drama "All Saints." The Channel Seven show has reportedly focused on the lives of nurses at a suburban Sydney hospital for the past seven years. Between Courtis' writing and the reported plotlines of the show itself, we found so many examples of the damaging "angel" stereotype of nursing that we wondered if we had wandered into the middle of a canonization proceeding. Despite one good passage suggesting that television's heroic health care worker narrative may not be doing society any favors at a time of real-world cost-cutting--including nurse short-staffing (!)--most of the piece reinforces the stereotypes that have contributed to the current health care crisis.

The Age piece is headlined "Saint be praised." In it, we learn that Georgie Parker, the "saintly practitioner of the blessed art of medical melodrama," is about to leave "All Saints" after seven years of "compassionate caring" as "much-loved nurse Terri Sullivan." Indeed, Georgie "took the nation through her nunnery," namely the halls of the hospital's Ward 17 where she worked. The character's "enigmatic, soulful and spiritual bedside manner produced miracles" for patients, as well as for the show's ratings and critical acclaim. "Critics loved her, and now network beatification must surely follow." (In fact, beatification is one step toward sainthood; canonization is the actual making of the saint. There's a whole course on this in nursing school.) The piece goes on to suggest that "St. Terri" has earned her place in the "stained-glass windows of soap opera."

The piece then pursues an actual idea, namely that the public likes its "TV nurses and doctors" to be above all the messy, hurtful stuff that actually goes on in hospitals, a little "holier than thou," but that this may not be a good thing:

We certainly don't want to hear about budgetary cutbacks, fewer nursing shifts, overworked people in tears over the bed sheets, or nurses only a little less helpless than ourselves. TV soaps like All Saints clean all that up for us, keep us from getting too anxious. Since politicians with their hands on medical purse-strings also watch shows like All Saints and ER, this may not necessarily be doing us any long-term favours. Do they really think that, just like on TV, doctors and nurses work better with less?

Wow. Recognition that the mass media might actually affect what decision-makers think about health care, and that it's failing to address some of the key issues of the managed care era, including nurse short-staffing. And after that, the piece manages to tone down the saintliness to describe Parker's prior role as nurse Lucy Gardiner on the series "A Country Practice," and her new job as host of the factual series "Medical Emergency," in which she reportedly has a calming influence as viewers are shown distressing real-life emergency ward events.

Unfortunately, after that it's back to the sugary goodness. The piece explains that Parker's "All Saints" character, nurse Terri, "had suffered through domestic abuse, the daughter of a bullying, drunken, devout Catholic father and martyr-like mother." Terri's father "adored" her, noting that "God's chosen my little girl," and "boasting that one day she would be a nun." Though Terri was drawn to nursing, and to a young physician, "after episodes of angst, Terri went religious," actually joining a religious order. Later she left the order and returned to the physician, who evidently died. After more troubles and some further romantic activity, Terri appeared to settle into an "affectionate counter-punching" with "irascible ward supervisor Frank Campion." And who is Frank? A Channel Seven site notes that he is the "[h]ead" of the emergency department, a "driven, commited perfectionist," a "brilliant man and a highly skilled doctor who possesses boundless energy, enormous intelligence and a scathing wit." Notice any contrast with the portrait of the beloved, spiritual Terri? Do we have our stereotypes straight? Good.

The Age piece concludes that "[li]ke Frank, TV's patients are going to miss the feisty saint." Real patients may be more interested in "driven," "highly skilled" nurses with the "intelligence" to save their lives, protect them from deadly complications and medical errors, and teach them how to prevent and manage chronic disease. What channel are those nurses on?

See the article "Saint be praised" from the June 19, 2005 edition of The Age.

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