After watching every second of the Peabody- and Emmy Award-winning Hopkins 24/7 and Hopkins documentary series from ABC News, I did not think there was anything that TV had left to tell me about the making of and professional lives of medical doctors.
But after seeing the final installment of Nova's 21-year project, Doctors' Diaries, which premieres Tuesday night at 8 on MPT (Channels 22 and 67), I now know I was wrong. It is not that producer-director Michael Barnes finds new emotions, themes or narratives that ABC's Terry Wrong didn't in his brilliant studies of Hopkins and its doctors. But Barnes is able to provide an astonishingly in-depth look at the educational and career arcs of seven medical school graduates because of the two decades he spent with them.
Like the 7 Up project that profiled a group of English children every seven years starting in 1964, Barnes started with seven Harvard Medical School students in 1987, and has followed them through school, internships and into their professional careers and personal lives. This is no knock on the Hopkins documentaries, which are marvelous examples of cinema verite filmmaking, but there is simply no substitute for the monumental amount of time Barnes spent with these folks when it comes to establishing a sense of intimacy.
One of the seven doctors profiled is now with Hopkins, David Friedman, an ophthalmologist at the Wilmer Eye Institute. Another of the seven, Cheryl Dorsey, grew up in Baltimore. But while she completed her training in pediatrics, she has since changed careers to become a community health worker, and runs a nonprofit in New York.
One of the great joys of watching the final two hours of this series, which ends April 14, is how incredibly sure-handed Barnes has become in telling these stories. The editing is superb in its fluidity. In fact, I do not believe I have ever seen a PBS documentary that was more perfectly edited. As a viewer, you feel like you are skating along on a perfect sheet of words and imagery, and then, boom, suddenly Barnes stops you in your tracks to make a major point about the price that must be paid to join the medical priesthood.
Among the most powerful moments in Tuesday's episode comes when Jane Leibschultz, a third-year student, sees one of the patients whom she got to know at Beth Israel Hospital die in surgery during a heart operation.
Standing near the back of a ring of medical personnel surrounding the operating table, she starts to moan aloud when she realizes the man is dead.
"Oh, God, this is terrible," she says. "I told this guy he was going to be fine." And then she starts sobbing loudly.
We see one of the surgeons take her aside and hear him saying, "The responsibility we have now is to keep a calm head and help his family."
"But it's like a bad dream or something," she says.
No, it's her new reality, if she wants to be a doctor.