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ABC Revisits Johns Hopkins Hospital, Where Every Moment is Critical

June 24, 2008

“Hopkins,” a six-week sequel to the outstanding “Hopkins 24/7″ documentary series of eight years ago, raises a question: Will the television audience embrace genuine doctors the way they do those who look like George Clooney and have nicknames like McDreamy and McSteamy?

Alas, this is a rhetorical question. Everyone knows the answer is “of course not.” This despite ABC’s efforts in promo ads to link the heroic efforts of genuine medical heroes at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins Hospital to the fictional antics of Seattle Grace of “Grey’s Anatomy,” where elevator rides from the first to the second floor take longer than most surgeries. Even suggesting such a connection is like trying to tie penicillin to Pez.

Terence Wrong, who produced both series, which premieres at 10 p.m. EDT on Thursday, said in a phone interview he has had it in the back of his mind since “Hopkins 24/7″ that there were still great stories to mine at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Considered one of the finest medical facilities on the globe because of its world-class staff and cutting-edge techniques, Johns Hopkins is also unique in that it serves Baltimore’s inner city. This creates a situation where ground-breaking transplant operations involving squadrons of medicine’s best and brightest take place day and night upstairs while victims of drive-by shootings are receiving triage in the overwhelmed first-floor emergency room. Hopkins chronicles all of this. If the series has a flaw, it is that it tries to do too much; the quick cuts from doctor to doctor, case to case, can be disorienting.

The battalion of doctors Wrong introduces might not have sexy nicknames, but they are real heroes and engaging individuals, lifesavers who often put their patients’ wellbeing ahead of their personal lives. Those who choose to play God _ in the most positive sense of the term _ do not get to punch out at the end of eight hours.

Dr. Brian Bethea epitomizes this. Recognized as one of the foremost cardiothoracic surgeons in the country, he devotes so much time to patients that his 13-year marriage is at a breaking point. This is an occupational hazard. With the clock ticking on the life expectancy of a woman awaiting a lung transplant and the window for a successful transfer from donor to recipient extremely limited, Bethea is on call around the clock. He has to be ready to go into long hours of surgery at any hour of the day or night. This does not do wonders for his home life.

Bethea’s wife says she personifies a rueful quip of others in her circumstances. “We are widows because we are married to surgeons.” The Betheas, who have been together since grade school, are in marriage counseling but it doesn’t seem to be taking.

To capture the taxing regimen of Bethea and his colleagues, Wrong’s crew had to subject themselves to an exhausting workload of their own. “They sometimes had to work 18- to 24-hour days,” Wrong said. “In some cases, they worked 36 hours straight. Then they would sleep for a day.”

To cover a transplant from every angle, Wrong had to dispatch one crew to travel with doctors from Maryland to South Carolina for the retrieval of the organ. “They were lost to me for 12 to 14 hours,” Wrong said. Another crew stayed at the hospital as the doctors prepared to spring into action. A third crew stuck with the patient and family members. As always in filmmaking, a lot of these efforts wound up on the cutting-room floor. “We shot 1,500 hours to make six,” Wrong said.

He hopes to cajole at least one more hour from ABC. “There may be a seventh hour,” he said. “If it’s not on the air, it will be on the Web site or DVD.”

Dr. Alfredo Quinones-Hinojosa, a renowned brain surgeon whose story is prominent in the first installment, exemplifies an element of the immigration debate not often heard on cable talking-head shows. Quinones-Hinojosa “hopped the fence” _ his words _ from Mexico in 1986 and worked in the fields before he was able to put himself through Cal-Berkeley and Harvard. “The same hands that picked tomatoes are now picking at brain stems,” he says proudly.

Dr. Karen Boyle is a pioneer, a female urologist, the first at Johns Hopkins. Her mother thought she was a little off in opting for a field steeped in male reproductive organs, she says. Her specialty is vasectomies, both the original snipping and the more problematic reversal.

The doctors are not the only characters in “Hopkins.” Earl Ingemann, an irrepressible 19-year-old from Bermuda, is a favorite of everyone at the hospital. A heart transplant candidate, the personable kid ignores orders to rest in bed. He roams the hallways, cutting up and cracking jokes with doctors, nurses and other patients. At any given moment, he might be in the cafeteria grabbing a snack or out of the hospital entirely to get his hair braided. While Ingemann charms everyone, he and the doctors are aware of the severity of his condition and the possibility he won’t survive to have the many children he hopes to father.

Peyton Penrod is also awaiting a new heart, but at 2{ he is too young to have dreams. He is also a reminder of a sad reality in organ harvesting. As his parents await a donor, it is a reminder that for Peyton to have any chance, someone else’s child of roughly the same age has to die.

One of the things Wrong said he learned in producing the series is that there is a significant difference of opinion in the medical community over whether it is medically efficient to transplant a heart into someone so young. A repurposed heart can only be counted on for about 10 years, Wrong said he was told. The drugs essential to ward off rejection also take a vicious toll on a youngster’s life. “It’s a torturous life for the whole family,” Wrong said. Needless to say, Peyton’s parents don’t want to hear this.

Surprisingly, there also is a significant difference of opinion in the medical community about allowing documentarians, such as Wrong, the access he has been granted. Inasmuch as “Hopkins 24/ 7″ lionized the medical profession, you might think other hospitals would be striving for similar media attention. The opposite is true, Wrong said. After “Hopkins 24/7″, “the medical establishment closed ranks” against such projects. An organization that accredits hospitals came out forcefully against them and passed patients rights bills intended to curtail access to medical procedures and patients.

Fortunately, Johns Hopkins has stood against such impediments, as long as producers such as Wrong attain explicit consent from everyone involved. Because of this, Wrong’s crew steered clear of the psychiatric ward. “How can you say you got informed consent in those cases?” he said. However, nothing and nowhere else was off limits.

More’s the pity that viewers invariably opt for the comfortable over the challenging.

“Hopkins” promises to be one of the more worthwhile and, despite its heavy subject matter, entertaining viewing options of the summer. The authentic medical crises depicted in “Hopkins” are more heart-rending, involving and inspiring than anything that comes out of a screenwriter’s word processor.

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(c) 2008, South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

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