`Shock Trauma': Not all the drama is just in the ER

Filmmakers of `King Gimp' get beyond blood, show emotional toll and heroism in 12-part series


September 12, 2004|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

It's no surprise that Dr. Tom Scalea likes the documentary about the Maryland Shock Trauma Center that will begin airing tonight on the Discovery health channel.

Scalea is physician-in-chief at the world-renowned trauma center and the film, The Critical Hour: Shock Trauma, makes the doctor and his staff look good. Very good.

That may be because the award-winning filmmakers, producer Susan Hannah Hadary and director William Whiteford, are University of Maryland employees. The pair works for Video Press, a facility that is part of the University of Maryland School of Medicine. Shock trauma is a part of the university system, as well.

But it also may be that to Hadary and Whiteford - who have won six regional Emmies, a Peabody and an Oscar - Scalea is something of an inspiration.

"The guy is just the ultimate hero. To be able to stay calm in those situations is just astounding," Hadary says.

Hadary and Whiteford won their Oscar in 2000 for King Gimp, a documentary about Dan Keplinger, an artist with cerebral palsy. Two years ago, they worked with Scalea on a six-part series about Shock Trauma medical personnel that was broadcast on the TLC network.

The close relationship meant the filmmakers had tremendous access in making the 12-part documentary and were able to tape not just the doctors and the surgery, but the emotional toll on patients and their families.

We see a Jehovah's Witness struggling to decide whether to violate his faith by allowing his wife to have the surgery and blood products that could save her life. We also see a couple in the moments after their son dies from injuries in a car accident and a high school wrestler who spends a harrowing night strapped to a bed in a neck brace, wondering if his head injury will leave him paralyzed.

Scalea and his medical staff come across as thoughtful, dedicated, professional and compassionate. The kind of people you want to have around if you're bleeding on a table.

"While we're into it, I believe I can save everybody. I have to believe I can save everybody," Scalea says in the first episode.

`Members of the team'

Scalea and other medical staff screened the documentary before its release. Along with Discovery Channel producers, they also had the right to edit the film. The edits were minor and did not affect the final product, Hadary says.

She admits that the documentary is a vehicle for spotlighting what she and Whiteford have long considered a medical treasure. "We were definitely there as members of the shock trauma team," she says.

The film is airing on a network that will reach up to 54 million homes nationwide this fall. About 69 percent of the homes in the Baltimore area subscribe to the Discovery health channel, the network says.

Viewers should have a good idea of what goes on at the R Adams Cowley Shock Trauma Center by the end of the first program. But in contracting for the shows, Discovery Channel executives - inspired perhaps by the current appetite for medical dramas and reality television - specified that they wanted 12 episodes. Several episodes remain to be taped.

Motor vehicle crashes account for 60 percent of shock trauma's patients. Recreational and industrial accidents and mishaps in the home cause another 15 percent. But the other 25 percent of the cases are the violence people inflict on each other - the assaults and shootings, Scalea said. The documentary chronicles how the center's doctors struggle every day - and achieve a 97 percent patient survival rate.

The filmmakers say they are focusing more on patients and their families than in their TLC production two years ago. In doing that, they say the film shows shock trauma for what it is: a last stop for the city's unsolved social problems.

The resulting footage makes Baltimore look as crime-ridden as it ever did in any Homicide episode.

Grappling for answers

The first episode chronicles the shooting at Randallstown High School in May that left graduating senior William "Tipper" Thomas in a wheelchair. A later show focuses specifically on city violence, detailing the cases of three gunshot victims and a homeless man slashed so badly that he can neither see nor speak on arrival.

Hadary said she hopes focusing on the victims of the city's crime will prompt a search for solutions. "I hope people look at this and ask why. This isn't what medicine is supposed to be about," she said.

The narration is accompanied at times by the ticking of a stopwatch, a reminder that decisions must be made quickly to save lives. A fast-paced beat accompanies scenes showing city streets where some of the shootings occur that become shock trauma's cases.

We may like to think doctors are all-knowing creatures. But the film shows Scalea and other doctors as human beings, who grapple for answers like anyone else.

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