Medical education dissected

Cable documentary looks inside a year in the lives of students.

January 20, 2002|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

Take two Academy Award-winning filmmakers, give them near-total access for one year to a group of talented young people on a profound journey, and the chances are pretty good that you are going to get outstanding television.

That's what happened with Med School, a new-five hour documentary series on life inside the University of Maryland School of Medicine from Baltimore's Susan Hannah Hadary and Bill Whiteford premiering nationally tonight on the Discovery Health cable channel. (A channel, unfortunately, carried mainly on digital and satellite systems, so finding this fine program could be a challenge.)

Remember ABC's Hopkins 24 / 7, the documentary series from ABC News that took viewers inside the Johns Hopkins Medical Center? Remember how ABC promised to show what makes a great teaching hospital tick, and then showed mostly life-and-death stories that resembled the prime-time narratives of NBC's ER, leaving medical education on the cutting-room floor?

Well, Med School really does chronicle the process of how you teach someone to be a medical doctor as it follows a series of students through a year. Just capturing that process would be enough to get excited about, but Hadary and Whiteford go even further, taking you inside the very culture of medical school so that by the end of the fifth hour you are seeing the world through the eyes of the people you have been watching.

This isn't television, this is cultural anthropology with great pictures, and it will help you understand that person in the white coat who might be holding your life in his or her hands as you never could without seeing it.

Just as Ken Burns uses biography as the building blocks of national history, so do Hadary and Whiteford know that highly individualized personal journeys are the way to take viewers inside large institutions or big ideas.

So we meet first-year students Steve Ronson, a California golden boy and star of the Stanford University swim team, and Shimon Blau, son of a Holocaust survivor and graduate of a rabbinical college, giving medical school a try.

On the surface, the two couldn't seem more different.

Ronson copes with the boot-camp-like stress of the first year by working out in the gym, swimming in the pool and making power fruit-shakes from a Stanford swim team formula. Most of the time -- even in the classroom -- he seems to float above the anxiety that looks to be crushing Blau.

We sit in Blau's apartment with him as he makes peanut butter sandwiches and wraps them in aluminum foil to take to school. He says peanut butter sandwiches are all he's eating these days, and that the first 90 days of med school have been among the "most miserable" of his life.

But, by the end of the first year, we see them moving toward the same place as Blau starts to bloom and Ronson begins to show some insecurity and a crack or two in the perfect facade.

What they always shared is intelligence, discipline and determination, the stuff of which University of Maryland School of Medicine graduates must be made.

There are other compelling stories here. We start the journey in Part One with green-as-grass first-year students awkwardly sticking scalpels into cadavers in their very first course. They are all ears and nerves as they eagerly try to please their instructor and keep their physical and emotional reactions to the dead bodies in check.

We end with third- and fourth-year students assisting in a kidney transplant between a husband and wife, or rebuilding the pelvis of a desperately injured man in the hospital's shock-trauma center. The movement is from death to life, from overwhelmed to the empowerment of graduation day from a great institution.

Med School airs from 8 to 11 tonight and 8 to 10 tomorrow night on Discovery Health. You can find the channel number for Discovery Health on your cable system by going to www.comcast.com and typing in your zip code.

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