This week in Australia ABC TV screened Episode 1 of a new medical drama called “Pulse“. It is said to be inspired by a true story of a transplant patient who became a doctor. Sounds cool, right? Well, it isn’t. From my perspective it’s pretty crappy, even for TV fiction. I started my career as a nurse in 1988. I’m not fond of nurses being ignored or misrepresented. Pulse does both. In spades.
1. The cast.
See how in the cast photo there are nine doctors and two nurses?
How does that compare to the actual health workforce in Australia?
In 2014 there were 610,148 registered health practitioners. Over half of these (352,838) were nurses or midwives – over 3 times the size of the next largest group [source: www.aihw.gov.au/workforce]. So, if we put gender-mix aside for a moment (about 90% of Australia’s nurses are female, about half of our new doctors are female) this would be a more accurate visual representation of what a real-life Australian health drama cast photo should look like:
2. The patient is critically unwell, but the nurses are nowhere to be seen.
At about 7:00 into Episode 1 there is a large group of doctors (no nurses) at the bedside of a patient. One doctor asks (referring to the patient), “What’s her oxygen saturation?” Another doctor looks around bewildered and is the prompted by yet another doctor to use the oximeter. He does and (instantly!) announces that O2Sa is 88% (this is spookily low for most people).
The fact is that nurses are the ones who are usually at the bedside, and are the ones who monitor the progress/deterioration of a patient, including measuring vital signs regularly. This monitoring would have been very frequent in someone who has low oxygen sats. The nurses would have the info on hand, and most likely would have been discussing care options with the doctors. Maybe the Pulse scriptwriters haven’t heard about multidisciplinary health teams, and don’t know that Australia’s largest union is the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation (ANMF) [source: anmf.org.au].
3. When you do finally see/hear the voice of a nurse it’s just two gossipy snippets.
At about 8:40 the nameless character listed in the credits as “Scrub Theatre Nurse” (played by Lara Lightfoot), stands around doing nothing while the doctors perform surgery. Her role seems to be solely to deliver these two consecutive bits of dialogue:
“I heard from the head of department there’s an MVA that didn’t make it upstairs. There may be a potential donor.”
“The head of surgery is retiring, right? Guess they’ll be looking for a replacement.”
It’s important to note that Scrub Theatre Nurse is not depicted as actually doing anything (other than gossiping). For the non-nurses out there, please be reassured that your tax dollars are not being wasted on employing nurses to just stand around in operating theatres doing bugger-all. The roles and skills of peroperative nurses are many and varied: visit the Australian College of Perioperative Nurses website www.acorn.org.au and/or follow their link to “A day in the life of a preoperative nurse“.
4. The only other two lines of nurse dialogue portray her as an unprofessional unethical antisocial bitch
Carol Little RN (played by Penny Cook) has just two lines of dialogue, as below:
At about 13:00 Carol Little RN says to Dr Tabb Patel (in front of the patient and another doctor): “This time do not catheterise the cliterous, intern.” Lead character Dr Frankie Bell (correctly) advises the intern that female catheterisation is usually a nurse’s role and that the nurse was bullying him. Carol Little’s behaviour is not just a breach of common decency, but also of about 27 different aspects of the codes of conduct and ethics that set the standards for all health care workers, nurses included.
At about 17:30 lead character Dr Frankie Bell enquires on the whereabouts of a man who was meant to be receiving haemodialysis. In reply Carol Little RN gets her only other line of dialogue: “Do I look like a fucking concierge?” Is that verbal abuse or just lalochezia? The former, I think.
It’s interesting that Australians have voted nurses as the most ethical and honest profession for 23 consecutive years (1994-2017) [source: www.roymorgan.com], but the Pulse scriptwriters think otherwise.
Look, Pulse is just TV fiction. The hilariously fanciful depiction of lead character Dr Frankie Bell leaving hospital to jump on her bicycle and visit the home of a dialysis patient who didn’t show-up for treatment, then stay at his bedside overnight after he receives a kidney transplant is evidence enough of creative imaginations at work. Pulse is not pretending to be a documentary. It is very clearly just another hospital TV drama. An old formula, acted well, shot beautifully, just scripted awfully.
I guess it’s not really all that important whether people watch Pulse or ignore it in the big scheme of things. My bias is such that I’d rather watch Australian TV than imported shows – it’s good for us Aussies to hear our own voices and see our own stories on the telly. However, this isn’t anything like an Australian story. Bananas in Pyjamas does a better job of portraying an Australian reality.
I will not bother watching any more episodes of Pulse because it insults nurses and nursing. Nevertheless, we should give credit where credit is due. In one simple seven-word sentence the Pulse scriptwriters managed to capture the sentiment of what it feels like to be a nurse who is angry about their skills being misunderstood, underestimated and devalued:
Thanks for reading my first outing as a television critic. As always, your feedback is welcomed in the comments section below.
Paul McNamara, 22nd July 2017
Short URL: meta4RN.com/pulse