by Lauren Cahoon
American TV viewers have a fever. And the only prescription, apparently, is more medical shows. The boob tube has provided eager American eyes with a smorgasbord of medical fantasy, from Doogie Howser to Doctor Quinn. And what’s not to like? The characters are usually either hot, hilarious, or dramatically fascinating—and they’re saving LIVES, damn it—all the while speaking medical jargonese that sails happily over our heads.
But while the shows are entertaining, are they realistic? How would their plot twists and bizarre medical emergencies stand up to expert analysis? Aided by two obliging M.D.’s: Dr. Carmen Mikacenic, a resident in internal medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston; and Dr. Gordon Baker, a Board-certified allergy specialist in Seattle, I focused a critical eye on three of TV’s most popular medical shows. And by popular, I mean the ones I watch—Grey’s Anatomy, House, M.D., and Scrubs.
House was the first to go under the microscope. In the episode "The Right Stuff", A jet pilot, Greta, suffers from synesthesia, (she ‘sees’ what she hears), heart failure, and labored breathing. Naturally, House’s first diagnostic test is breaking into Greta’s house to snoop, a standard procedure on the show. Not so much in real life. Both of my medical consultants soundly rejected that tactic. “Isn’t that a felony? Most hospitals don’t look too positively on doctors with a felony on their record,” said Mikacenic.
Facts get further tweaked when Greta goes into cardiac arrest inside an oxygen-saturated hyperbaric chamber, a large glass room stocked with medical equipment. The doctors, with some hesitation, shock her with defibrillators and promptly set her on fire. While Mikacenic noted that hyperbaric chambers are quite rare (“I think there’s only one in all of Boston”) and that they’re about as roomy as a tanning bed, she admitted that with all that O2 in the air, a patient could catch fire from the defibrillator charge.
Eventually, House opens Greta up to find cysts on her lungs—and instantly names the disease: “von Hippel-Lindau syndrome”, a disorder that causes tumors and cysts to form in various parts of the body. While this diagnosis would have required a biopsy and multiple tests to confirm, Mikacenic admitted that von Hippel-Lindau was real—and, “could theoretically cause synesthesia.”
Alright, so House got its medicine correct, but the execution is far-fetched, if not ridiculous. What about Grey’s Anatomy, a show more concerned with the intricacies of emotional baggage than medicine?
In the episode “Love/Addiction,” a methamphetamine lab explodes in an apartment building, sending an addict, the dealers, and their meth-addicted baby (from passive absorption) to Seattle Grace Hospital. Conveniently, the writers draw parallels between the drug-tortured addicts and the love-tortured doctors. This particular scenario didn’t surprise Baker, who has seen several patients come down with mysterious symptoms after breathing fumes from their neighbors’ home-run meth lab. Apparently, when the meth- baby has a stroke and a druggie dies of a heart attack, these are realistic outcomes of methamphetamine withdrawal. “It’s nasty stuff,” says Baker, “And its ingredients are explosive,” he said.
What about the melodramatic love affairs? “All of those young female physicians sleeping with their supervisors is bullshit,” Mikacenic said. Baker’s recounted real stories of an X-ray tech sleeping with a faculty member, a love-scorned medical student stalking her ex cross-country, and other various crushes and flirtations. So Grey’s Anatomy had the medicine right, and the melodramatic romance is at least distilled from real-life events.
Finally came Scrubs—the quirkiest show of the three, known to feature musical numbers, re-enactments of Star Wars scenes, and frequent slapstick. The episode “My House” featured a man turned bright orange from drinking too much tomato and carrot juice, and a healthy woman who suffered from a heart attack due to “broken heart syndrome”. Ludicrous, no? “Beta-carotene, if taken in crazy-person amounts, can turn you orange,” Mikacenic said. Baker agreed, “A patient was admitted to Mass General hospital who was bright orange—they drank two quarts of tomato juice a day. A body can’t excrete all of that properly.” Fine, the orange man was real. But broken-heart syndrome? “It’s extremely rare, but it can happen,” said Mikacenic. The heart is healthy but, due to the extreme stress that accompanies grief or shock, the arteries will spasm, mimicking the effects of a heart attack.
So who wins the Least Ludicrous Prize? Everyone has done their medical homework, and as for the social interactions—Baker claims there are messy love affairs worthy of Grey’s Anatomy, and cantankerous doctors (“congenital, hypertrophic sons o’ bitches”) worthy of House. And, “I actually think Scrubs is the most realistic show out of all of them,” said Mikacenic. “The relation between people is so absurd and over the top, but there’s some truth to it.” Nice to know. But if my doctor ever breaks out into song, I’m leaving the hospital.