'They add humanity to treatment of patients

Review: When ABC filmed `Hopkins 24/7,' it left out a major segment of health care. `Nurses' fills the gap.

January 27, 2001|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

"Nurses," a five-hour documentary that takes viewers inside the culture of nursing at the Johns Hopkins Medical Center, is the most enlightened and moving treatment of these medical workers that I have ever seen on television. This is a series that quietly explodes stereotypes that have been built by decades of male-oriented prime-time medical dramas, reaching back to ABC's "Ben Casey" in the 1960s.

All you nurses who were rightfully angered by the near-invisibility of your profession in "Hopkins 24/7," last year's highly publicized ABC News documentary on the Hopkins Medical Center, mark your calendars, set your VCRs and call or e-mail everyone you know, telling them to watch or tape starting tomorrow night at 8 on the Discovery Health Channel. This is the long-overdue series that starts to tell your story on prime-time television. In this film you - not the doctors - are the heroes.

Like "Hopkins 24/7," the Discovery Health documentary, which will air in five one-hour segments, focuses on different departments within the vast Hopkins complex, interweaving narratives featuring patients in often life-threatening situations with the medical professionals who try to help them. But here the medical workers are nurses instead of doctors, and most of them seem as concerned with caring for the patients as they do with treating them.

The difference between caring for and treating is best suggested on-screen by Melanie Michel, an oncology nurse who appears in Part 4. She describes one of the primary goals of her work with cancer patients each day by saying, "I want to constantly affirm our human bond."

Caring for includes medical treatment, but then goes beyond it to include that shared sense of humanity between care giver and patient. "Nurses" is loaded with it.

The first hour, which focuses on pediatrics, features a 9-year-old boy brought to Hopkins after he picked up a live electrical wire in an alley. He is badly burned, and his right hand has been amputated. Eventually, he'll lose the entire right arm, and it breaks your heart.

You'll see nurses changing the dressing on his badly burned arm and preparing him for surgery. You'll see nurses at his bedside reading the wall of machines to which he's attached as they assess what level of treatment he needs.

But you'll also hear Kaitlin Hamilton, the nurse in charge of his case, explain why she thinks it's now time to tell the boy, who has been mainly coping with pain, what has happened to him. He needs to understand, she says, that he no longer has his right arm.

As you see the realization of his loss flash across the boy's face, you also see the nurse's hand reach out to comfort him. Before the hour's over, you'll see how not only this nurse's expertise but also her concern and compassion can take a shattered little boy and put him on the path to recovery.

The segment is emblematic of the kind of intimacy, drama and medical reality the filmmakers managed to capture in "Nurses." Along with that, though, comes a warning for viewers: Some of the images are intense.

Discovery Health wants you to see the world as the nurses at Hopkins see it, so the filmmakers show us what a 9-year-old boy's arm looks like after electrocution. They also show us how a 1-year-old girl's intestines are temporarily removed during a liver transplant and what her body looks like afterward - belly bloated and scarred, a tiny bundle of flesh with what seem like a million wires attached. We need to see these things to understand the culture of nursing from the inside out.

The scene with the 1-year-old is representative of something else "Nurses" does better than "Hopkins 24/7" did: find ways to let the care-givers explain what they do and what viewers are seeing. Instead of just showing the child with all the wires running in and out of her body, we are allowed to eavesdrop as the nurse explains to the mother what the wall of machines at the other end of the wires is telling her about the little girl.

The mother asks if there is any way the nurse can find room among all the wires for her daughter's favorite blanket - and if she can place it so the yarn edging is against the child's face. The nurse finds a way.

The nurses in this documentary don't always find a way. Viewers will meet patients and come to vicariously care for them, only to see them die.

The pain on this side of the TV screen, of course, is only a hint of what many of the Hopkins nurses experience almost every day. It is another measure of their heroism, and our lives are enriched by Discovery Health's bringing it to us.


Where: Discovery Health Channel

When: Parts 1 (Pediatrics) and 2 (Critical Care) air at 8 p.m.-9 p.m. tomorrow; Parts 3 (Obstetrics and Neo-natal Intensive Care), 4 (Oncology) and 5 (Psychiatry) air at 8 p.m.-11 p.m. Feb. 18

In brief: Television finally does right by nurses.

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