Stories of life and death told against a background of hospital gowns, fluorescent lights and the worried words of loved ones hoping for the best are nothing new to many Baltimore viewers. Hundreds of thousands tuned in when ABC News took viewers inside Johns Hopkins Hospital on its 2000 documentary series, "Hopkins 24/7," as well as a sequel in 2007.
But Baltimore's Mercy Medical Center is the focus this week in a new docu-series, "NICU," premiering at 10 p.m. Thursday July 15 on the Discovery Health cable channel. And the fact that it can be favorably compared to the Hopkins series is high praise. "Hopkins 24/7" was one of the finest documentary series that network television has ever done.
Don't misunderstand: "NICU" is not in the same league as "Hopkins 24/7." But based on the two episodes featuring Mercy that were made available for screening and will air Thursday, "NICU" is a compelling production done with some insight and care. The focus is on infants fighting for their lives and the parents who hope and pray and wait — and the doctors and nurses who try to pull the infants through. It is all hard to watch without getting caught up in the drama of the neonatal intensive care unit at Mercy.
But that's the on-screen aspect — an engaging TV program worth your time as a viewer. What about the real-world, behind-the-scenes matter of cameras and technicians being allowed into Mercy's NICU? What kind of decisions were made behind the scenes to make this show possible?
"We thought it was a special opportunity to focus in on the work we do in the NICU," Dr. Susan J. Dulkerian, director of newborn services at Mercy, says in explaining why the hospital agreed to participate. Dulkerian appears frequently during the first two episodes, explaining to viewers what the doctors and nurses are doing and what's at stake for the infants and their parents.
"I think to a lot of people, the neonatal intensive care unit is kind of this puzzle," Dulkerian says. "I haven't seen a lot of the show, but what they taped at least focuses on what the hospital course is like for the mom who comes in pregnant, knows she is going to have a pre-term baby and knows that baby is going to have to be in the NICU — or doesn't know that the baby is going to need intensive care, and then has to deal with that."
The graduate of Baltimore's Bryn Mawr School says another of the reasons for letting the cameras into NICU is a history Mercy has of working with Discovery in 2002 on a production, "Babies: Special Delivery," that included premature babies.
"It was pretty easy, frankly, the way they bring the crew in and acknowledge that we're still there to do a job and take care of families," Dr. Dulkerian says. "And they allow us the latitude to say, 'No, you have to stop for a minute for us to make this or that happen [in the care of the infant].' And yet they still are ultimately able to depict what actually goes on day to day."
The crew spent five weeks at Mercy, filming during the day and being on call at night to follow any major twists or turns in the lives of the infants and parents they were chronicling.
In one of the two Mercy segments airing Wednesday, viewers follow two premature babies who have great difficulty breathing. The infants are so sick at first that the mothers are not allowed to hold them for days and weeks.
As the cameras follow the journeys of both babies, one of the most powerful and enlightened aspects of the storytelling is the way the role of the nurses in NICU is highlighted. The medical expertise it takes to care for infants who are too sick for their mothers to hold is tremendous, and most of it is supplied minute to minute by nurses, not doctors.
Lynn Sadofsky, executive producer for Discovery Health, says educating viewers about such facts of life inside NICU is important.
"But what we really wanted to do is tell these personal stories of the parents," she explains. "And that's why we've followed these parents through the process from coming into the hospital usually in a premature situation, and giving birth. And then following the process of the babies going into NICU, and the parents dealing with the doctors, seeing their babies hooked up with many, many wires, bells and whistles going off. And we really wanted to capture the emotional impact — communicate how hard it is. Luckily, in most of the cases, we also get to see the baby going home, so you also get to see the joy."
The first two episodes are filled with a lot of scene-setting shots of downtown Baltimore at various times of day and night. They range from tight shots of the Calvert and St. Paul streets sides of the sprawling medical complex to expansive overheads that show the entire downtown area into the Inner Harbor. Mercy and Baltimore both look good.
But the social issues confronted by many area residents are not ignored. They walk in the door with some of the patients, and it is important that the series also include that side of the story, Dr. Dulkerian says.
"There's one aspect you'll see of babies who are sick and have to overcome a lot," the director of newborn services at Mercy says. "But you'll also see some of those moms who don't have a lot support from their families having to deal with the stress of having a sick baby in the intensive care unit — and how our staff tries to support them. Helping them is at the heart of our mission at Mercy."
"NICU" airs at 10 p.m. Thursday July 15 on the Discovery Health Channel
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