Real nurses sound off about TV portrayals

OK, I admit to being curious about the entertainment world’s latest foray into nurses-as-fodder-for-television-drama.

The new TV nurses on the block are Christina Hawthorne ("HawthoRNe," premiering at 8 p.m. June 16 on TNT) and Jackie Peyton ("Nurse Jackie," which premiered at 9:30 p.m. Monday on Showtime).

Here’s the spin on "HawthoRNe" from TNT’s Web site: "the tough-yet-caring Chief Nursing Officer at Richmond Trinity Hospital. She prides herself on standing up for her patients and preventing them from falling through the cracks of hospital bureaucracy." She’s also widowed and raising a teenaged daughter. Jada Pinkett Smith is in the title role.

Jackie Peyton is tough too, but in a different way. Her character, played by "Sopranos" veteran Edie Falco, is an emergency-room nurse who, we’re told, is "far from ordinary. As an ER nurse, she navigates the rough waters of a crumbling healthcare system, doing everything she can to provide her patients with the best care possible." In the show’s inaugural season, watch her tell off a doctor, forge an organ donor card and pop prescription pain pills to get through the day.

It makes for good drama, but is it true to life? What do real nurses think about how these two shows portray their profession?

Emergency-room nurse and uberblogger Kim McAllister weighed in on this issue recently at her blog, Emergiblog: The Life and Times of an ER Nurse. She gives a thumbs up to Christina Hawthorne – "Unrealistic? Yeah. Am I going to watch? Absolutely."

Readers offer their own critique in the comments. "But yeah, a manager getting her hands all germy? I can put up with that fallacy if the show offers a reasonably accurate portrayal of nursing," one person wrote.

Someone else comments on Christina Hawthorne’s slim, toned shape:  "She must not touch those Dunkin Doughnuts in the breakroom."

The discussion really heats up, however, over "Nurse Jackie."

Some of the commenters take issue with the show and its image of nurses:

– Drugs, sex and more nursing stereotypes. Here we go again…

– Television is a place of fantasy certainly, but this seems to be just a pathetic, cliched soap opera. There’s enough drama and comedy in what real nurses experience that they didn’t need to go down this sorry path. The drug use aspect troubles me as others have mentioned, but I was horrified by her forging a signature.

Other commenters think Jackie Peyton is closer to real life than many nurses might like to admit:

– For once it’s not about the doctors. And guess what… I’m 25 years sober and I’ve worked with many an altered nurse.

– Sure, 97% of nurses are normal, hard-working saints, but I have never worked in a single ER that didn’t have at least one "Nurse Jackie" type. For whatever reasons, ERs have always been a hotbed of sexual tension, and I can recall at least one nurse/doctor hookup in the supply closet that got busted and wound up in firings. Three nurses I’ve worked with in the last year have been fired for prescription drug abuse. They were all generally regarded as great RNs.

I’m not saying that these are normal people or even a small majority of nurses, but it’s not exactly like this type of character only exists in drama. I honestly think I would be bored senseless watching a show about that 97% of great, moral nurses.

And some commenters are just plain skeptical about the entertainment industry’s ability to capture reality:

What bothers me is that I keep seeing enthusiastic posts and tweets about how nice it is to have a "realistic" medical show that finally shows "the truth" behind the scenes. (I assume this includes sex in the middle of the pharmacy, apparent abandonment of patients in favor of kicking off your shoes and taking a rest in the chapel, and habitual unnoticed stealing of narcotics.) Really? Could the public possibly be that stupid?

– If you expect Hollywood to give you a real, true story or even truth, don’t hold your breath.

The Truth About Nursing, an organization that seeks to increase the public’s understanding of the role of nurses, offers its own perspective here, suggesting that people "keep an open mind and watch the show in full." It also has launched a thoughtful online discussion that’s worth reading.

Do you plan to watch "HawthoRNe" or "Nurse Jackie"? Why or why not? If you’ve seen the opening episode of "Nurse Jackie," what did you think about it?

Update, July 2: Registered nurse Theresa Brown, who guest-blogs for the New York Times Well blog, gives her perspective.

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