TECHNICALLY SPEAKING
WHERE TO LOOK

While Schelling’s suggestion that writers hang out at hospitals to learn about the nursing trade makes plenty of sense, there are lots of places to look on the Internet first before becoming an E.R. groupie.

At the top of Schelling’s reading list is the American Journal of Nursing. Not only do the articles discuss the latest trends in the profession, but the letters to the editor give some insight into how the general nursing population reacts to current issues.

If browsing medical journals is just too fancy for you, Allnurses.com is a fantastic hub for all things, well, nursy in the form of news, blogs, and forums. As I write this, there are 453 members and 4,550 guests logged into the site. One of them has got to know something that’ll help you write your script.

If you’re looking more for policy information, stop by the American Nurses Association’s NursingWorld. Here you’ll find volumes on ethics, credentialing, government affairs, and all the other (yawn) fascinating aspect of the trade.

Finally, there are always the blogs. Just Google the specialization you’re researching, followed by “nurse” and “blog.” You’ll find what you need. Currently, codeblog seems to be the one to read, although I wish Booty Nurse, would get off her butt and write more.

Nurse Susie
Written by Denis Faye

The ‘90s did not start well for nurse Susie Schelling. Her status as a “newly single mom” had her in a bit of a funk, so she wasn’t working much, just staying at home with her kids and coping. Then, one day, an anesthesiologist friend called. He didn’t have time to fulfill one of his film consulting gigs, so he wanted to throw some of the work her way, hoping it might prove a much-needed distraction “He said ‘I want you to get up off this couch and stop crying and go help them with this movie,’” explains Schelling, “and then he said that I might actually get paid for it.”

She took the job advising for The Doctor [Screenplay by Robert Caswell] and so impressed the producers that they hired her for their next gig. And the one after that. Soon, Schelling became a go-to expert on nursing and all things medical. She’s advised for over 60 films and television shows, including Picket Fences, The Practice, X-Files, Diagnosis Murder, Strong Medicine, ER, Nip/Tuck, The Shield, Crossing Jordan, Mad Men and, most recently Hawthorne.

All because a friend wanted to help her out. “It was just a great serendipitous moment,” she concedes.

Even with that massive workload, Schelling still graces the operating theater for the occasional open heart surgery, so it was a miracle that she found time to talk to Technically Speaking about the ways the nursing profession is represented on the screen. Here’s the big take away: That cliché where the doctor screams, “Get me a (important medical term here), STAT!” doesn’t happen in the real world. Who knew?

What does Hollywood get right about the nursing profession?

What they do seem to portray really well is that nurses are professionals, that they know what they’re doing, that they’re the patients’ advocates. They show that very well.

And what do they get wrong?

Sometimes, it’s the doctor-nurse relationship. Sometimes, on TV, it’s common that doctors yell, “Get me this, now!” and nurses say, “Yes doctor!” That is a miscommunication to the world at large because we’re more collaborative with our physicians. We work as a team. It’s not necessarily them saying, “Do this” and we do that. We have conversations about things. We don’t have people yell at us, and we run away and go get something. I think that’s a common TV trick and that’s bothersome.

So when the guy has the heart attack in the room, the doctor doesn’t yell, “Get me the paddles, stat!”

Well, they may say it, but not in a way like, “Run away and get it!” We all know the medications we need. We know the supplies that we gather for those incidents. We do them all the time, so for them to say they need epi, that’s fine, that’s great, but some of the commands are just kind of silly. A nurse that works in that environment knows the drugs they need and that the crash cart is close and all the medication is prepared. It’s just a matter of asking for them, not screaming for them.

I guess they put it in there for drama.

Of course. I can go with that, it’s just sometimes a little bit different from the real world.

What are some of your favorite shows and movies?

The very first film I worked on, The Doctor, is one of my favorites because it showed the humanity of physicians, that William Hurt had to come down from being pompous to being human.

I think they got it right. After working on so many more, that was nice to see the humanization of the physician— and to show all the patients with their fears and their upsets and their triumphs. I like that a lot.

I also like China Beach. They did a great job, and it’s not spoken about a lot when you talk about nurses. But that one I think was excellent.

And which aren’t you such a fan of?

The hallmark of “not great” portrayal was called Nightingales, I think, where the nurses were always in the locker room in their teddies. That probably was the worst one.

I’ve noticed how far the nursing profession has come on film since those naughty nurse movies, probably more than any other profession on film. Do you agree?

I agree. I think it was the little plaything, the little baby nurses. It was fun and flirty.

Every profession has men and women working together, but since you’re so close, you’re in the operating room, and you’re in your scrubs all day, it’s like standing in your pajamas next to people for hours on end and people develop relationships. I think that’s what people keyed into, that it’s so raw and so intimate that people do develop relationships really fast.

It’s like war.

Yes, and it’s constant. Your emotions have to be tied up, yet they’re on your sleeve. It’s that blend that’s intriguing to people. How can you run that code and not be crying through it? We all have to, there’s no ifs, ands or buts about it. And later, when you collapse, you hold your co-worker. They’re there to support you.

I think that’s the intrigue. People used to see the closeness, but now, I think they portray the professionalism better. I really do.

What would you like to see in a show about nursing, just once?

All the nurses speak to me and they say, “Make sure they know that we are thinking, caring human beings.” I don’t know how to say that very well except to the fact that we are there constantly with our patients while the doctors come and make rounds and they go. There are a lot of observational skills and knowledge that help get people better by being next to the patient at all times. I don’t know that that’s always portrayed. A lot of time, for the drama, they show that the nurses are directed by physicians and answer back to physicians, but they don’t show all the independent hours. There are many, many hours that judgment and skill come into play.

Universally, nurses like to see the acknowledgement that they’ve gone to school, that they know things, that they are the first line of defense for patients, that they are the ones that people talk to, that have their fears and question answered. It’s a lot of human connection and that’s what the nurses provide as opposed to what the doctors give.

Some doctors are very socially smart, but some are book people and we have to follow in their wake and interpret.

So you think being a people person is a prerequisite for being a nurse?

I do. I think that having compassion and knowing how to communicate is a huge part of being a nurse. People take their cues from us, whether to worry, don’t worry, fret, don’t fret. To be the calm undercurrent is a challenging position. We don’t panic in front of our patients. Well, in a perfect world we don’t.

When you’re advising, which do you comment on more, medical procedure or the profession of nursing?

I would say it’s a blend. When scripts come out, I vet them to see whatever the illness is, what the disease is, to make sure that’s all flowing pretty well. And I make sure the staffing situation is right for that situation. Then we hire some real paramedics who know the very real nature of what’s going on and some real nurses to receive the patients. It’s innate with nurses and paramedics, what they do and how they do it. It’s very difficult to teach someone who’s not in the healthcare profession. A syringe to an IV is second nature to someone who does that every day; to give that to a background artist is really challenging.

So those guys are real on those shows?

Uh-huh, the ones next to the actors are real medical people. It gives the actor the confidence that their hands are doing the right thing. It gives a very real sense of medicine.

What one piece of advice do you have for writers working on a script about nursing?

Actually talk to some nurses. I think it’s easy to write words from what you’ve seen on television. I wish that they would learn from the people that do it instead of, “Oh, I remember seeing this somewhere on some show” because that may not be an accurate portrayal of the nurse. I’d prefer that they have some background about what nurses do or hang out at a hospital and talk to the nurses.

Would that be easy to do?

I think it would be. The nurses I have contacted have been very enthusiastic. They want to get it right on TV, so I would suspect that they would love to speak to the writers.

Of course, I know there’s blending. I know “real” and writers know “drama” and the blend of it is always kind of cool, but to start with what’s real would be cool.