For the first time in a while, when registered nurse Sandy Summers turns on the television this month, she'll look forward to watching a new medical drama. • That's because Summers, who has co-written a book about how media portrayals of nurses may endanger public health, will finally see not one, but two new shows featuring a character she says is missing from most hospital-focused TV series. • A realistic nurse.
"When you have physician characters on most hospital dramas, they spend most of their time doing nursing work," said Summers, 47, whose book, Saving Lives: Why the Media's Portrayal of Nurses Puts Us All at Risk, cites ABC's Grey's Anatomy and Fox's House as particular offenders. "They make people think that nursing doesn't take much skill, and that nursing is mostly about getting stuff for physicians. And when nurses are portrayed as unskilled, we can't get the funding we need to hire them."
That tide of misinformation may turn a bit on Monday, when Showtime unveils Sopranos alum Edie Falco (pictured at right) in Nurse Jackie, an explicitly dark comedy about an emergency room nurse in a New York City hospital.
Eight days later, Jada Pinkett Smith bows in TNT's drama Hawthorne, as Christina Hawthorne, the chief nursing officer at Richmond Trinity Hospital in Virginia, tormented by the death of her husband and a relentless job. This show makes history in many ways, allowing the wife of movie superstar Will Smith to play the first black nurse series star since Diahann Carroll's Julia in 1968.
Should these survive, they'll be joined in early 2010 by Mercy, an NBC drama centered on three nurses at a hospital — one of four new medical dramas planned for the 2009-10 TV schedule.
Why so many nurses now? A cynic might suggest that with so many doctor-focused shows already on-screen or just off (ER, Private Practice, Grey's Anatomy, Royal Pains, House and Mental), perhaps a nursing show is just a new way to tell old stories.
"I just think, once you put an idea like that out in the universe, people gravitate to it," said Pinkett Smith, 37, who also serves as executive producer on Hawthorne. "Nurses have to be psychologists, they have to be wives, they have to be girlfriends, they have to be husbands . . . nurses are patient advocates."
The executive producers of Nurse Jackie, who developed their series for Showtime more than a year ago, have a different explanation for the surge in nurse shows: Three-time Emmy winner Falco decided to star in a nursing series.
"When Edie attached herself to a nurse project, that hit Hollywood like wildfire," said Liz Brixius, 45, who rewrote a surreal, partially animated pilot script with partner Linda Wallem into the grittier, blue-collar comedy that became Nurse Jackie. "Jackie has her own code . . . and gets the job done. If Dirty Harry were a nurse in her 40s, he'd be Jackie Peyton."
She's definitely not Florence Nightingale
There's a lot about Nurse Jackie that nurses like Summers might not admire.
Addicted to painkillers, Falco's Peyton is sleeping with the hospital's pharmacist. She also practices a form of frontier justice in the ER, forging a young man's signature on an organ donor card after his death and flushing the severed ear of a man who brutally assaults prostitutes down the toilet.
At least Peyton isn't so incidental she might as well be wallpaper, a common complaint Summers has about the way television treats nurses.
Summers, who once directed the Center for Nursing Advocacy and who is based in Baltimore, has a long list of the ways TV mischaracterizes nurses. For example, there's "the handmaiden portrayal," where nurses are shown as mostly unskilled assistants to physicians. Other bugaboos: showing nurses as sex objects; showing doctors doing things nurses typically do (giving intravenous medication, spending hours with one patient); showing nurses who mostly aspire to be doctors.
She can produce cast lists for medical dramas with nine major characters and one nurse (ER), or 10 major characters and no nurses (Grey's Anatomy). The result, Summers said, is students less interested in studying to be nurses and medical professionals convinced nursing is menial work.
But in subverting old stereotypes for nurses, are these shows creating new ones?
Showing a different side of nursing
Both Nurse Jackie and Hawthorne, for example, feature a nurse who allows a patient to die by not challenging a doctor's mistake forcefully enough.
Both shows feature the lead character struggling to deal with clueless, arrogant doctors but confiding in a competent physician friend, and both show rookie nurses nearly overwhelmed by the job.
"It's time to humanize these characters (in medical dramas), and the best way to do that is through the nurses," said Glen Mazzara, an executive producer for Hawthorne who worked as a hospital administrator for 13 years. "If you've ever been a patient in a hospital, you see your physician for just a few minutes every day. The rest of the time, you're treated by nurses."
And for the first time in a long while, TV is beginning to catch up with that reality.
"There's already a Web site out there saying 'Send Nurse Jackie to rehab,' " said Brixius, laughing. "They worry it makes nurses look bad. And these people take it all very, very personally."