`Gift' wrapped in a lot of hype

TV Preview

December 19, 2003|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

The story is getting to be a familiar one for television viewers: Time is running out for a desperately ill patient when new life is found thanks to daring surgery done at the Johns Hopkins Hospital.

The narrative was writ large by ABC News in its acclaimed reality series Hopkins 24/7, which aired in 2000. Tonight, it's written in much smaller and less dramatic letters in Super Surgery: A Stranger's Gift on the Discovery Health Channel.

Super Surgery tells of Sharon Sullivan of Washington, who came to Hopkins in 2003 for a kidney transplant. As a result of disease, both her kidneys had been removed by the time she was 25. A successful transplant of one of her father's kidneys had allowed her to live a relatively normal life as a television producer and mother for 17 years until the organ started to fail.

As the hour-long documentary opens, Sullivan's transplanted kidney has given out and her antibody count is skyrocketing. She's being poisoned by her own body. The problem goes beyond finding a kidney match to locating a surgeon who believes a transplant is practical for a patient in the shape Sullivan is in.

"Sharon Sullivan is dying," the narrator says. "Her only hope, a procedure so dangerous it breaks all the rules."

All the rules, according to the film, except for those of Dr. Robert Montgomery, chief of the division of transplantations at Hopkins. Montgomery heads up an experimental program for patients with high antibody counts like Sullivan.

"We've sort of become the Supreme Court of Kidney Transplantation," Montgomery says. "People come here when they're near the end of the line."

The first part of the program is about Sullivan's life and the search by her parents to find a donor. Each week, they visited a different church and asked the congregation for donors. They took out ads in newspapers and put up fliers in supermarkets. They found a donor through one of those random fliers.

And, then, they come to Hopkins where Montgomery transplants the donated organ. No doubt about it, the story of Sullivan and her family is an inspirational one of willpower, grit, medical knowledge and faith. But it deserved a better telling.

The problem is in the overwrought way it's presented. As surgery begins, for example, the camera shows friends and family in the waiting room. "They hang their hopes on Dr. Montgomery's ability to do magic on a patient no other surgeon will even touch," the narrator says.

Then, later in the surgery when it appears the donor kidney might be too large for Sullivan, the cliches of melodrama mount even higher as the narrator rhetorically asks, "Will this be the final cruel twist of fate that defeats Sharon Sullivan?"

As one of the executive producers, Sullivan has no one to blame but herself for such an overstated tone. Some of the stories at Hopkins are so dramatic in their own right, they are best told through understatement and a narrative driven by simple, unadorned facts.

Life and death doesn't need the hyped-up language of prime-time entertainment television to move us. Maybe Sullivan was too close to see that.

TV tonight

What: Super Surgery

When: Tonight at 8

Where: Discovery Health Channel

In brief: A powerful story diminished in the TV telling

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