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Desperate Nursemaids

April 13, 2008 -- Tonight, ABC's "Desperate Housewives" gave us a hospital nurse as mousy, pathetic physician lackey who can be bribed into revealing sensitive patient information with free lunch at a French bistro, and who has time to leave the hospital mid-shift to eat that lunch. Yeah, we know--it's just Wisteria Lane. We're sure that the episode's 16 million U.S. viewers can all separate the serious (even pretentious) voiceover-related themes and ostensibly realistic drama from this contemptuous portrayal of a nurse. Viewers just know real nurses aren't like that, even though they've been fed similar disinformation since birth. The episode, "Sunday," was written by Alexandra Cunningham and Lori Kirkland Baker.

In the episode, main character Gabby's boyfriend Carlos is a hospital inpatient with an eye injury, which in fact means permanent blindness. Another of Carlos's girlfriends, the notorious Edie, visits him in the hospital. Because a recent tornado has caused her to lose all of Carlos's money, Edie wants to make amends. She tries to do that by returning a diamond bracelet Carlos gave her, thinking it must be worth thousands of dollars. But she becomes angry when Carlos admits the diamonds are fake. Edie leaves his room angrily.

Walking down the hall, Edie spots a wide-eyed nurse at what seems to be a nurses station, meekly eating a flat white bread sandwich.

Edie: Hey you! Do you know how long it's going to be until Carlos gets his sight back? Because there's a two word sentence I'd like to say to him, and there's a hand gesture that goes along with it.

Nurse: I don't know...Mr. Solis's condition is very serious...

Edie: Serious? What's wrong?

Nurse: know, you should really talk to the doctor about this. I don't even think his girlfriend knows.

Edie: You mean Gabby?

Nurse: I'm sorry. I've said too much already.

Edie (pausing): Please don't tell me that's your lunch.

Nurse (apologetically): Yeah. I'm sort of on a budget.

Edie: No no no. If you're gonna provide quality care, you're gonna need some quality food. Now I know this great little French bistro. It's a perfect place for lunch...and conversation.

The idea, clearly, is that the formidable Edie will easily get whatever information she needs out of the the weak, unsophisticated nurse.

Later, Gabby shows up at the hospital with a priest, so she and Carlos can be married. Carlos starts to tell her he's blind, but sensing her immediate negative reaction, suggests it will only be for 3-4 months. Still later, Edie shows up at Gabby's house to cruelly fake-congratulate Gabby on her "win" of Carlos. Edie says she could not have been the "hero" that Gabby will have to be, having to "do everything for" Carlos. Gabby says he will get his sight back in 3-4 months. But Edie sets the "poor gullible fool" straight.

Edie: I talked to the nurse and she said his condition is...oh what's the word...oh yeah. Permanent.

Gabby denies it.

Edie: Call the doctor if you like. Apparently, he was begging Carlos to tell you.

Gabby does call the physician, and later has a fight with Carlos, who has returned to her home. They appear to reconcile.

Of course this is a pretty minor depiction of a nurse, but consider how the small elements add up. The timid nurse is evidently there to act as a pass through to the physicians. She can't speak with any real authority, even to say HIPAA and her own ethics limit her ability to speak about patients to non-family members, and that Edie should speak with Carlos himself. Instead, the nurse does the classic handmaiden thing: pass the buck to the physician who has real power and expertise.

The lunch element is a little more subtle. Of course few viewers will think, "Hey, that nurse is violating nursing ethics and arguably the law by telling Edie about Carlos's condition. Talk about 'gabby!' Also, how pathetic that she would do it for one free lunch--does "on a budget" mean she's making minimum wage? Also, how does she have time to actually leave the hospital in the middle of her shift? Aren't nurses supposed to be so short-staffed today?" But at some level, all this will register, especially since there is no counterexample--no actual health care by this nurse, and no other nurse in the episode.

All this adds up to an image of a nurse as a sad little handmaiden for whom professional duties are not even an issue. Note that the show did not have the physician spill the beans; he actually urged Carlos to tell Gabby, implying that it was not for him to break patient confidentiality. But with nurses, it's just a matter of upgrading their lunch a bit.

We wonder what this nurse would do for a free dinner--let Edie give Carlos his medication?


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