On a television sound stage in Albuquerque, N.M., Canadian actress Jeananne Goossen is intently learning how to stitch sutures.
To perfect her craft, she carefully alternates between pieces of rubbery latex flesh provided by the makeup department and small sacks filled with red beans.
“I am a real medical nerd. I always wanted to be a doctor, so I have this crazy pride in how well I do at this,” says the Toronto-born Goossen.
Goossen plays surgical resident Krista on NBC’s medical drama The Night Shift, which is currently shooting a second season. And taking “suture boot camp,” as she calls it, is all part of the training.
Medical dramas require the audience to suspend disbelief on many levels. For one, that gorgeous model-like men and women populate your local hospital. For another, that the doctor who looked like she stepped out of Vogue can also wield a scalpel.
“It’s weird when they give you homework and you have the cast sitting up all night sewing on bananas,” says Canadian Dillon Casey, who plays med-school dropout Griffin Conner on Global’s medical series Remedy. “But if you don’t get it right people will start tuning out because it’s just not believable. You have to immerse them in that world.”
Actors are no strangers to plunging themselves into the environment they are showcasing. It’s not unusual for someone playing a police officer to ride shotgun. Or actor-lawyers to embed themselves in a courtroom. And then there are the thespian doctors potentially lurking in your local hospital.
It may come as a surprise to some that one of Canada’s biggest cultural exports is pretend doctors, which includes Goossen, former Grey’s Anatomy star Sandra Oh and Toronto native David Shore, the executive producer of the hit medical drama House.
That’s also where an entire industry of residents, paramedics and nurses have sprung up to consult with movie and TV producers to make sure that what is aired is accurate without compromising the drama.
But that research can potentially lead to complications, at least in the case of an Ontario man who says that when he was at Brampton Civic Hospital getting a rectal exam a man and woman whom he assumed were medical students were actually actors from CTV’s medical show Saving Hope. The statement of claim in his lawsuit alleges that they may have participated in the examination.
“He was shocked when he learned later who they were,” says his lawyer, Douglas Elliott. “It’s all well and good to help out a TV show so that they can do a better job. But the patient should know they’re dealing with pretend doctors, not real doctors.”
Medical consultant Dr. William Cherniak, an emergency and family doctor who has worked on film sets, says while he is not privy to what happened at William Osler, there is usually a protocol to protect confidentiality. This normally includes clearing the visit with the hospital first, then talking to the patient individually.
“Doing a tour of the hospital is tricky because of patient confidentiality,” says Cherniak. “You would approach each patient individually first, without the actors, and ask if they were willing to participate and assure them that it would be completely fine to say no. Although I’m not sure how many would say yes if it were a rectal exam.”
Cherniak last consulted on the Canadian movie Broken Heart Syndrome, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. He had to show actors the basics of how to don a gown, use a stethoscope and work with a scalpel in the operating room.
The experience has made him keenly aware of what works and what doesn’t.
Among his peers, some shows stand out. That would include Scrubs, a defunct drama following the lives of medical interns that is at the top of his list for accuracy.
Grey’s Anatomy, which focuses on the lives of residents at the fictional Grey-Sloan Memorial Hospital in Seattle, would be somewhere in the middle, he says.
“With Grey’s, the medical stuff and the hierarchical nature of the hospital is reasonably accurate. Although I don’t think everyone is sleeping with everyone else as much in real life. Otherwise, no one would be doing any work.”
The worst offender? That would be the medical-detective drama House, says Cherniak.
“It’s entertaining, but it’s also grossly inaccurate and sometimes makes no sense. It’s all over the map.”
Actors Casey and Goossen say fans catch on quickly when the action isn’t realistic. And getting some of the complicated medical procedures right is always the challenge.
In an upcoming show, Casey’s character attempts to do surgery on the roadway after a pedestrian is hit by a car.
Goossen’s character Krista, meanwhile, has had to extract a fork from the throat of a patient. (Luckily for the actor, the medical doctor consulting for The Nightshift had done the procedure before and could show her exactly how to do it. Writers on the show had incorporated the doctor’s experiences in the story line.)
But it’s the simple stuff that can ultimately trip you up. One big turnoff for fans is not wearing masks. Or forgetting to scrub when entering the ER. That apparently gets lots of online finger pointing.
“We got flak because we weren’t masked enough in our first season,” says Goossen. “But the reality is you wouldn’t know who anyone was with the gear on, so they had to push it a bit.”
In Remedy, Casey is likely the cast member who is most familiar with a medical setting. His father, Richard, is an Oakville-based urologist. And he’s also a tough critic.
“I grew up with my friends asking me for medical advice just because my dad was a doctor, which made no sense, but I would give it anyway,” says Casey. “But watching TV with my dad means that he’s the first guy to poke holes in stuff. He’s always pointing out why the procedure doesn’t make sense. So that’s made me even more aware of making sure we nail it.”
Also, says Casey, surgeons don’t freak out when they’re in the operating room. At least not normally.
“They are actually at work, so it’s just another day for them. There is a lot of humour and joking. But they need to amp up the drama on TV,” says Casey.
Getting it right may have been the motivation behind producers doing a tour of Brampton Civic Hospital. But it’s still not clear what exactly happened to Walter Fisher, the Brampton man who initiated the lawsuit against the producers of Saving Hope.
The claim was filed in October, but the alleged incident happened two years earlier. The $100,000 lawsuit names several players, including the William Osler Health System, which includes the Brampton Civic Hospital, CTV, consultant Dr. Roberta Hood, Saving Hope actors Erica Durance and Benjamin Ayres, and researcher Maggie Gilmour.
So far, no statement of defence has been filed. But a CTV spokesperson told the Star that the network “would never comment on any pending or current litigation.”
William Osler spokesperson Cara Francis said in a statement that the hospital has “strict policies” regarding patient privacy.
“Under no circumstances would Osler permit anyone outside of the patient’s care team to attend or observe patient treatment or consultations.”
Fisher’s lawyer Elliott says his client could feel “more than one set of hands” on his body.
Still, meeting actual patients is the exception not the norm for actors. Despite having full-time medical consultants on the sets of Remedy and The Night Shift, both Goossen and Casey say they have never had the chance to do rounds at a hospital with an examining physician.
“We’re a show based in the ER and it would be really inconvenient to shadow someone under those circumstances. I think we would be a liability,” says Goossen.
Casey, meanwhile, says the lawsuit may simply be a cautionary tale about actors who are a little too immersed in the world they are portraying.
“I don’t know exactly what happened. But seriously, as a patient I would want to know who was touching my butt. And as an actor, the last thing I would want to do at work is to look up someone’s butt. That’s all I’m saying.”