NBC’s ‘ER’ Feels Like a Utopian World Where Doctors Care About Their Patients

“We used to worry you cared too much, Carter,” Dr. Susan Lewis (Sherry Stringfield) tells medical student John Carter (Noah Wyle) in the second season of the medical drama ER. “We don’t worry about that anymore.”

That is intended as and is received as, a backhanded diss. Doctors are supposed to care about their patients; people are supposed to care about each other. In 2022, that feels like an almost revolutionary sentiment. Which is perhaps why I’ve been somewhat desperately bingeing ER over the last few weeks.

I’m not a longtime ER fan. I think I saw a couple of episodes of the show sometime back in the 90s when it was first running, but I’d never given it any sustained attention. But like most people, I like George Clooney and I was curious to see where he got his start. So I gave it a shot. And I’ve been buried in surgical gloves and lidocaine ever since.

One of the things I like about ER, in contrast to the more fancifully melodramatic Grey’s Anatomy, is that the show embraces the mundanity of the ongoing health care crisis. The show isn’t precisely realistic; Doug Ross (George Clooney) happening to be in the right place at the right time to save a little boy from drowning seems improbable—I’ve lived in Chicago for 25 years and no one’s ever run up to my car to ask me to save or rescue anyone from anything.

But even there, the kid eventually gets funneled back into the rhythms of the Emergency Room; 1-2-3 from the gurney onto the operating table, insert IVs, call for medication, defibrillators, and clear. And then you either get a moment of joy or you grieve and the next one rolls in. It’s an endless assembly line of mortality in 45-minute increments. Everyone’s in the hospital forever, waiting for someone to stitch them up or not. Which feels like where we’ve been for the last three years, without the intermissions.

It's not just the relentlessness that resonates, but the policy indifference bordering on malevolence. Cook County General is underfunded and understaffed. Carol Hathaway (Julianna Margulies) one of the Nurse Managers, has her hours cut back and cut back until she has to take a temp job. And then she ends up working as a temp in Cook County because they don’t have enough staff on the floor.

Meanwhile, the star surgeon is massaging study results. Nobody will challenge him though because he brings in so much funding. It’s not even clear morally that someone should challenge him; without his money, the ER would collapse. The health care system is so busted that the only way to provide trauma care to these patients is to operate on patients under false pretenses on those patients. Is this a system that could handle a catastrophic pandemic? We know the answer now, but it was pretty clear then as well.

Children die, bureaucrats shrug, and then more children die. But nonetheless, ER is a comforting show, because even John Carter, in his better moments, obviously want to help people, despite the lack of money and time and resources.

There’s a lovely scene in an overcrowded emergency room where Carter is talking to a boy who swallowed a battery and tells him they’re going to have to do an invasive procedure to see if it’s lodged somewhere dangerous. Then ER head Mark Greene (Anthony Edwards) grabs a hand-held metal detector from a cop and tells him to use that. Sure enough, they detect the battery down in the stomach, below the diaphragm; no test needed. Carter is delighted by the ingenuity, and by the fact that he doesn’t need to subject this kid to unpleasant tests. The kid is pretty happy too.

Health professionals making small efforts to reduce misery—that’s not exactly a sweeping utopian vision. And yet, it kind of is. Covid surges are eroding health care capacity; nurses increasingly struggle with anger, grief, and despair, as staffing levels plunge to crisis levels. Meanwhile, our leaders, in both parties, assure us that the economy is booming and that everything is back to normal.

On ER, the misery never seems to end—and in the real world, watching ER, there doesn’t seem a near-term end to the misery either. But out here people won’t even admit we’re dying. At least the doctors up there on the screen keep trying, to patch you up with some skill, some compassion and some hope. Given the alternative, it’s hard to turn it off.

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This post was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.

Image Credit: NBC.


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Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer based in Chicago. His book, Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics was published by Rutgers University Press. He thinks the Adam West Batman is the best Batman, darn it.