My first brief glimpse of nurses on TV was a nurse in a tight pink dress and small, matching cap being reprimanded by a stern-faced Sister wearing a starched white structure miraculously affixed atop tightly-secured hair. Even if I’d watched Australian soap The Young Doctors (1976-1983) religiously, I’d have learned nothing useful about my future career.
A decade later I was sitting in a lounge at the nurses’ home watching A Country Practice (1981-1993) alongside students who had started their training several years earlier than me. The shot moved between close-ups of the action, involving nurse ‘Shirley Gilroy’, played by Lorrae Desmond, frantically squeezing a bag of blood.
“The level’s not even going down!” one of my fellow students exclaimed, sparking criticism of the show’s many inaccuracies. It was the first time I saw the gap between reality and how health care’s shown in fiction, but not the last!
Setting aside the ridiculous (House MD) only showed nurses as aides in codes, while a tiny handful of doctors did everything from patient transport to culturing), and the insulting (Grey’s Anatomy where the only named nurse I saw gave a doctor an STI, and vanished soon afterwards), recent fictional TV series have moved to somewhat more realistic depictions.
In both the UK original (2009-2012) and the US remake (2013-2015), dark comedy Getting On centred on the frustrating, mundane, and absurd aspects of modern nursing, from education that increases work without adding staff or equipment, to assisting with other people’s research. The episode where nurses had to collect specimens so a consultant could extend the Bristol stool chart to “an exhaustive 31 types of patient faeces” springs to mind.
In Outlander (2014-present) Claire, who time-travels from post-war England to 18th century Scotland (not the realistic part!), is shown as skilled, confident, adept, and professional. The pilot episode shows a woman so focused on her patient that she briskly enlists as aides the warriors who’ve taken her prisoner.
And while the primary focus of the American medical drama Code Black (2015-present) is on doctors and medical emergencies, from the opening scenes of ED NUM Jesse Salander showing the new residents around the department, cautioning them not to “kill a guest in [his] house,” the drama consistently shows nurses with knowledge and skill, working in partnership alongside other clinicians.
I get that TV fiction is about entertaining escape; legal dramas omit tedious hours of research, police procedurals skip mountains of paperwork, and reality shows edit out 95 per cent of everything! The totality of who we are and what we do won’t ever be faithfully portrayed, but I’m delighted that TV viewers are now seeing at least some of our work’s complexity and significance.