IMAGE:  October 2004

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Hospitals get dose of reality TV with Discovery series

University doctors’ triumphs and tragedies play for a national audience.
Four years ago a team of television cameramen, technicians, reporters, and producers descended on the University of Chicago Hospitals for ten months, seeking one-of-a-kind cases and dramatic stories. The resulting footage of against-all-odds medical and surgical sagas was broadcast in 2000 on the Discovery Health Channel’s original reality drama Chicago’s Lifeline. Two of that season’s hour-long episodes won the show Freddy Awards, given by the American Medical Association and TIME, Inc., for the best medical reality series. One of those award-winning installments—featuring Laurie Hoogewind, a 120-pound Michigan woman with a 180-pound tumor—was expanded for an episode of Discovery’s Super Surgeries.

IMAGE:  At Chicago and across the nation, the latest study aids are prescription drugs.

Chicago surgeons on camera.

Last fall the Hospitals were once more in the camera’s eye. Representatives from Morningstar Productions, which produces Chicago’s Lifeline, returned to film six new episodes, again searching for unusual cases—situations where patients came to the Hospitals as a last resort, often after being told elsewhere that nothing could be done.

When they revisited McKay McKinnon, the plastic and reconstructive surgeon who had pulled together the Hoogewind team, he had another case for them: the oversized-tumor episode had run in Romania, where Lucica Bunghez, confined to her bed in a Bucharest hospital, saw it—and regained hope. A tiny, frail young woman who, like Hoogewind, suffered from neurofibromatosis, Bunghez had watched helplessly as her tumor slowly grew bigger than she was. No surgical team in Romania was willing to attempt its removal, but after watching the program the Bunghez family initiated a sequence of contacts that led to McKinnon. By then, however, Lucica was far too ill to travel to the United States.

So the show’s producers stepped in, providing funding, booking flights and hotels, and easing diplomatic arrangements to send McKinnon and his old team, including Madelyn Kahana, professor of anesthesia and critical care and a key player in the Hoogewind case, to Bucharest. In January the group spent a week there, meeting the patient, learning to communicate with their Romanian colleagues, and finally performing the 14-hour operation.

They pulled it off again. Bunghez survived the grueling procedure, recovered well, left the hospital about six weeks later, and returned to her hometown of Brasov, in the Transylvanian Alps.

Not all the stories ended as happily. The second episode featured “Baby Miles” Mitchell, born prematurely with an enlarged liver formed completely outside his body. At high risk for infection, Miles was unlikely to survive. Despite the dismal prognosis, a team led by pediatric surgeon Mindy Statter spent more than a month trying to save the child, performing multiple operations to ease his liver into his tiny abdomen a little at a time. And they almost succeeded.

“It was a touching story of a devoted mother’s affection and a feisty doctor’s determination,” said Jacque Day, a Morningstar producer. “Even though we knew from the start that the odds were against him, we were all so sad when Miles died. And even though they were behind the project, we were concerned about how the family would respond to the sad ending of his story.”

But the day after the episode ran, Miles’s aunt sent a thankful e-mail: “The show was amazing,” she began. “I can’t express in words how much my family appreciates the opportunity to see our boy like that again. So many friends and family never got to meet Miles and you managed to achieve that. You have done a wonderful thing for a lot of people.”

Season two’s episodes, which feature Bunghez, Miles, and many others—from a new mom dealing with triplets to a heart-transplant hopeful—will be rebroadcast for several months on the Discovery Health Channel. Talks are in the works for a third season.—John Easton


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