Hopkins surgeon Watkins joins ranks of PBS 'New Explorers'


April 08, 1993|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

Public television visits Johns Hopkins Hospital for the second time this week.

On Monday, PBS launched its "Medicine at the Crossroads" series with a look at how medical doctors are trained at Hopkins. At 8 tonight, "The New Explorers" series profiles cardiac surgeon Levi Watkins Jr. in a half-hour segment titled "A Dream Fulfilled" on MPT (Channels 22 and 67).

For those not familiar with "The New Explorers," its host is Bill Kurtis, a TV anchorman in Chicago. It often features individuals pushing the boundaries of science.

Kurtis and company start out tonight by examining Dr. Watkins' pioneering work in the early 1980s at Hopkins, where the surgeon implanted the first internal automatic defibrillator, which jolts arrhythmic hearts back into a normal rhythm.

This part of the show works well. It includes dramatic operating-room scenes of Dr. Watkins intentionally stopping a patient's heart during surgery and then starting it again.

The life-and-death tone of that scene is balanced with a Kurtis interview of one of Dr. Watkins' patients, Art Donovan, a former Baltimore Colts lineman who has the implanted defibrillator. Donovan is, well, Donovanesque in his explanation of how his heart stopped one day and the device automatically restarted it -- "Boom, just like that."

But "The New Explorers" starts to lose its way when it attempts to analyze Dr. Watkins' involvement in the civil rights movement. The Watkins family had attended the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala. Their pastor was the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Dr. Watkins appears to be a lifelong disciple of Dr. King's teachings. One of his patients today is Rosa Parks, the woman who sparked the Montgomery bus boycott by refusing to give up her bus seat to a white man in 1955. And, thanks to Dr. Watkins, minority enrollment at Hopkins quadrupled within four years of his arrival, according to the hospital. But when Kurtis starts telling viewers that Dr. Watkins is the "fulfillment" of Dr. King's dream, the anchorman is way off base.

Dr. Watkins' does, indeed, seem to be one of "The New Explorers." But this does not mean that the civil rights battle has been fought and won, and that Dr. King's dream has been fulfilled, as this report implies.

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