“ER”- Helping Viewers with 15 Seasons of Medical Care, Thank You

When someone you love is going through a medical crisis, the last thing you want to think about is writing an entertainment column. But while my wonderful husband Frank was laying on a gurney in the ER of the (truly great) Veterans Hospital West LA, I was observing the organized chaos going on all around us and thinking “This is just like being in an ‘ER’ episode.”
Actually, being a fan of NBC’s acclaimed drama since its debut 15 years ago helped me get through the five weeks that Frank (and I) spent in the VA hospital. We went to the ER because Frank was having trouble breathing for a few days. There was no chest pain, he just felt a little pressure. But a super-sharp ER doctor recognized the subtle signs, and we found out Frank had suffered a mild heart attack, and he had fluid in the lungs. It wasn’t as scary for me as it sounds, because I knew that these conditions are very treatable. I just didn’t know at that point that it would lead to a quadruple bypass and more than a few bumps on the road to recovery. Frank is doing great now.
During the preparations for surgery and time in the ICU, et al, the cardiac team, attending physician, residents, and young doctors in training (it is a fine teaching hospital) kept me informed of every medical step we’d be taking. Surprisingly, I understood a lot of it. And if I didn’t, I wasn’t afraid to ask questions. I know watching “ER” helped with my confidence.
It isn’t the first time that “ER” has helped in a crisis. Last year Frank and I visited the “ER” set over at the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank. We chatted with executive producer Joe Sachs, who also happens to be a practicing ER physician. I told him that I learned how to prevent kidney stones from an episode that warned about having ice cream followed by hot tea. (Ever since stopping that nightly routine, Frank has never had another kidney stone!) I wanted to know if Joe or the other producers and writers on the show take pride in the healthcare tips that are so subtly put into the scripts. “Have you have actually saved someone’s life by a storyline that you’ve done?” I asked him. Dr. Sachs, who joined the show as a technical advisor the first season, smiled proudly and told me, “Yes! Although we never intentionally put healthcare tips into a show. But because we are current and accurate with our medical information, as a side-effect, people learn.” He noted that there are public health organizations that have studied the impact of the show by doing the telephone surveys with viewers of the show. Sachs reported, “They found out that 50 percent of our viewers learn things about health from the show. And a third has actually learned specific things that helped them or family members. That’s really astounding, and for that reason, we’re so committed to being accurate.”
A great example of “ER” saving a life is the story Sachs told me about the storyline that had Dr. Mark Green’s brain tumor come back. “I had to come up with a way to dramatize it. The first time he had his brain tumor, he had a seizure. The second time it had to be more subtle and he bit his tongue because he couldn’t control his tongue. His tongue was protruding to the side. So about a year after that episode was written, I got a letter from a woman in Texas who was having terrible headaches, and none of the doctors were taking her seriously. They said, ‘it’s stress.’ And her tongue was protruding to the side. So when she saw that (episode), she went to the ER and demanded a CAT scan. She had a huge tumor that was growing behind her nose that was a millimeter away from her spinal cord. Two weeks later she would have been dead. She had surgery. She’s still alive and considers me her guardian angel, and we correspond. We actually flew her and her kids out to be extras on the set. That’s someone whose life was truly saved.”
There are many other experiences that have shown that people pay attention and have been helped by the show. It’s just sad now to know that “ER,” the fifth longest prime-time scripted series in the history of television (on NBC from 1994 to 2009) will be presenting its finale on April 2.
Throughout its 15 seasons, the outstanding medical drama has told great stories and offered great drama. “That has always been our intention,” said Sachs. But he’s glad the side-effect of the show has been educating people. “ER” helped me personally to navigate our medical crisis. That’s must-see TV, thank you.

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