Doctors let TV series document their world
■ Physicians at Johns Hopkins University Hospital initially had concerns about cameras getting in the way but found the experience gratifying.
By Kathleen Phalen Tomaselli amednews correspondent — Posted July 21, 2008
Prime-time teasers for "Hopkins" promised the kind of hospital TV drama familiar to viewers of shows such as "ER," "Chicago Hope" and "Grey's Anatomy." The high-tension music and fast-paced clips of patients, doctors and emotional outcries -- "I can't believe they call me a doctor" and "We've got a heart" -- positioned this real-life documentary as another high-drama show.
But "Hopkins" isn't "Grey's Anatomy," with actors playing doctors. It's real doctors sharing an intimate portrait of their life-and-death world.
"This was a human documentary about people," said Terence Wrong, executive producer of the six-part ABC News series airing Thursday nights at 10 p.m. EST through July 31.
Eight years after producing "Hopkins 24/7," Wrong and his team returned to Johns Hopkins University Hospital in Baltimore intent on showing physicians as they really are. For several months, 24 Hopkins physicians allowed the documentarians' lens to inhabit their lives.
"I wanted to demystify medicine, to get rid of the whole God perspective of doctors," Wrong said. "To make it easier to have conversations with your doctor."
In a time when annual medical liability premiums often top $100,000 per physician and the media feast on what went wrong, it seems a bold and vulnerable move just to let cameras roll.
"As a surgeon, I was a little concerned. It's one thing to do a medical video and edit it," said Luca Vricella, MD, chief of Pediatric Heart and Lung Transplantation at Hopkins, who is featured transplanting a baby's heart in one episode. "I was very honest and said, 'You need to be like wallpaper and I want to be able to say, get the crew out,' but they had no impact at all on what we did."
Producer Wrong's cinéma-vérité style equaled invisibility.
"At first, I was extremely nervous, but the crew was so professional," said Alfredo Quiñones-Hinojosa, MD, who directs the brain tumor surgery program at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center.
Dr. Quiñones demands perfection in the operating room. Still, it's evident in his segment that he never asks for more than he is willing to give.
Twenty years ago, this highly recognized surgeon was picking tomatoes as a migrant farm worker with the same hands that plucked a meningioma from Mike Larson's brain during the documentary.
"I touch their brains, I touch their lives and I could potentially change their lives in a drop of a pin," he says to the camera.
But what about the genuine emotion, the hand-holding, the concern that viewers were privy to during the first episode?
"I promised myself I would never deliver the kind of care I received and my parents receive as migrant farm workers; the arrogance and treating us as inferiors," he said. "The day I become that type of physician, I better retire."
Despite critics' comments that the series breaks no new ground, "Hopkins" delivers moments of intimacy, honesty and humor. Take an opening segment with urologist Karen Boyle, MD, as she examines an older gentleman's prostate.
In one shot the patient is bent over the exam table, his pants draped around his ankles. "I never thought an attractive young lady would be my urologist," he shares after the exam.
"It doesn't matter," Dr. Boyle responds. "The only thing I've found that makes a difference is that I have smaller fingers."
"I thought it was funny they included that," said Dr. Boyle, the first female urologist at Hopkins, who is leaving to head the male infertility program at Shady Grove Fertility Reproductive Science Center in Rockville, Md. "But I'm glad Terry Wrong brought that up early, then I could address it. ... I try very hard with my patients to craft the conversation as natural and comfortable."
And because TV shows often depict women in medicine as hard core or falling apart, Dr. Boyle said she wanted to show that, in reality, female physicians can do it. "I was excited to show that a woman in surgery can be married, can be pregnant and can still be normal," said Dr. Boyle, who was pregnant with her third child during filming.
Still, the Hollywood hype hasn't smitten the featured physicians with the idea of TV stardom. And being in the Thursday night slot following "Grey's Anatomy" didn't prompt dreams of tabloid covers, red carpets or Emmy Awards. Perhaps this momentary celebrity was little more than their 15 minutes of fame.
"The next day we go back to the same issues, go back to our everyday lives," Dr. Vricella said.