A medical show breathes new life and possibility into a stifled medium

William Casselman November 20 1978

A medical show breathes new life and possibility into a stifled medium

William Casselman November 20 1978

A medical show breathes new life and possibility into a stifled medium


William Casselman

Snug in a chemical snooze and swaddled in surgical green, a pale, blonde boy named Peter Chapman lies supine on an operating table and awaits the knife. Peter, at 11, has endured open-heart surgery twice before. Scar tissue will make this third cutting of his heart more difficult. Yet the entire operation will be filmed and televised on autumn’s one startling program, NBC’s Lifeline.

Snooping for close-ups, the camera finds Peter’s sweet vulnerable face, records the pallor and delicate bones of a little boy born with an injured heart. Outside the operating room, lying on a gurney cot, drowsy with preoperative medication,Peter prints the word “stinky” on the wall with his doctor’s felt pen, then looks up and asks the surgeon,

Dr. Paul Ebert, a question:

“He going to use the needle or the mask when he puts me to sleep? Mask, please?”

Now around the drugged youngster a snowdrift of aseptic white.

Now the surgeon holds an object poised above the swabbed chest: scalpel,

blade of apt name. For in precise Latin scalpellum means “the little carver.” Shall we avert our eyes now, lest we spy blood and squirm with laymen’s horror, seeing the body violated, lustrous guts exposed? No, let us keep watch and be astonished. Not shoved or pushed or plunged is the scalpel. With graceful stroke the surgeon paints a slender wound on Peter’s chest. Straight down the pectoral midline over the sternum, Dr. Ebert makes his incision, in the same way a lacewing skims a quiet pond, engraving a momentary arrow on the water’s surface. Where metal and flesh convene, flesh divides like obedient cheese.

I had always supposed that surgeons by temperament held in check a mighty aggression and allowed it out cut by cut as they whacked through the bright red meat of the human body. Now, for the first time—on a TV show of all places—I discover that surgery can be an act of love. Risky, nervous work—yes—but

love, too. And I learn this not from Gray's Anatomy, not from hard-assing it on the bleachers of a surgical amphitheatre, but from pictures on TV, edited for melodrama, also for medical clarity. TV can be more than “chewing gum for the eyes.”

The format of Lifeline is simple: we follow one doctor—this week a surgeon, perhaps next week an obstetricianthrough surgical encounters, glimpsing tidbits of his private life and observing his patients. Busy hospital scenes are

not conveyed to us with the belligerent technical incompetence of cinéma vérité. Film documentary no longer has to mean a lummox jostling an Arriflex and reducing the images to a blurry silver-nitrate porridge. There’s a new camera mounting called Steadicam (it won a technical Academy Award this year for its inventors), a mechanical arm of gimbals and rods to which the camera is bolted. Then the whole shebang is strapped to the cameraman, enabling him to film a running orderly. Lifeline uses Steadicam or a similar camera mounting to take shots so jiggle-free one would swear they had been filmed Hollywood-style on tracks.

Young Peter suffers from a pulmonary stenosis, a congenital heart defect in which the artery that carries blood from the heart to the lungs is too narrow. It will have to be widened, using a plastic procedure and a Teflon patch graft. The voice-over narration, written

by a doctor, explains most of what we see in terms laymen understand. Lifeline writers, however, could be more generous with medical information. Some jargon floats by untranslated on the sound track. One feels producers want us left somewhat mystified so that we retain awe, like villagers gibbering around a shaman.

Finally the artery is made wide enough for life. A Teflon graft thumps happily at the edge of the ravaged heart, as the medical team prepares to close the chest hole, flap by flap.

A clock performs its calisthenics. Fade to black.

The nurse bends to remove an intravenous tube. With a hoarse scream Peter begs, “No more. Don’t touch me. It hurts.” Hours pass. He sits up.

Nurse: “What do you want for lunch, Peter?” Boy: “A taco ...?”

Nurse laughs. Boy laughs.

What is the perfect medical TV show? From the film library of medvid: We reject the emollient guck dispensed by Marcus Welby. We slap away the wrists of Richard Chamberlain’s Dr. Kildare. Lifeline is a beginning. But fans of the show should worry. It’s on Fred Silverman’s NBC. Mr. Silverman’s mind does to an idea what Cuisinart does to an eggplant. I don’t want Lifeline to become disco surgeon. One snap of the great schlockmeister’s pudgy fingers could do it.

In the last scene Peter’s father hugs his son tight and says, “Okay, let’s go home.” Going home. Peter pulls on his faded blue jeans, strings up scuffed Adidas, combs his hair with one stroke of a hand. Together father and son set off slowly down the long corridor to the parking lot and daylight. The boy may have to return, Dr. Ebert has warned. Hope not.

I think of another person who awoke from a dream, a little girl named Dorothy: “But anyway, Toto, we’re home and this is my room and you’re all here and I’m not going to leave ever ever again, because I love you all and ... oh, Auntie Em, there’s no place like home.”