Revisiting an Old Favorite

I’m sure in an old post here, I’ve written before that I wanted to be a doctor (or at least I told people I wanted to be a doctor in a not-dishonest way) when I was very young. That was my first semi-serious career choice when I was my son’s age through my high school years. I loved biology. I wanted to help people. I thought medicine was the best way I could do that at the time (before I realized the financial commitment and my basic inability to distance myself enough from other people’s pain to maintain my own mental health). So in 1994, when ER premiered? I was all in. It was a very realistic medical drama. And I wanted to be Dr. Susan Lewis when I grew up. Seriously.

J and The Boy do not enjoy medical dramas. They just don’t. Unlike cooking shows and old sitcoms and mystery shows and comedy films and music and even true crime documentaries? They absolutely will not watch these with me. So when I realized all of ER was available on a streaming service, I didn’t think to rewatch it, because The Boy is always home with me. But then, he started having more regular Zoom video game playing meet ups with his friends, which he would take in the den, leaving me in the family room with only the big TV and Little G, who never gives a damn what I watch as long as I will scratch his ears when he requires it. So I restarted the series for the first time in probably 20+ years. And we got to the Dr. Greene-defining episode, Love’s Labor Lost. Some spoilers about this episode are about to follow, for those of you who don’t like those and haven’t seen ER, but maybe plan to. And also? Ahead? There is some potentially disturbing description of medical procedures and depiction of women in media, particularly pregnancy. So…please continue reading at your own discretion.

I vividly remember watching this episode when I was in high school, and feeling immense empathy for Dr. Greene. That was exactly what the writers meant for me to feel. It’s a very well written episode in many senses, and that was definitely one of them. Another way it was well written is just how REAL the pregnancy situation going off the rails felt. When I watched this show as a girl, I didn’t know (and to be honest, nor did I really even consider in any realistic way) what pregnancy was like or would be like, particularly the medical intervention aspects of it. When I watched this show as a girl, I related to the doctors, because at the time, that’s who I said I wanted to be, and who at least a part of me really did earnestly think I wanted to be. But revisiting this episode now as a mom, and a woman who has experienced being a woman involved as a patient in the medical community, particularly during pregnancy, all of my empathy went to the patient. I related to the patient; the woman who eventually dies giving birth from being basically dismissed and having her concerns glossed over or ignored by (competent, ‘not-the-bad-guy-here’) doctors. That’s reality. And the patient in the episode (like me) was white. Women of color, especially black women, are even MORE ignored and dismissed as patients receiving medical care.
There was one scene in this episode, where the mother is unconscious from a combination of effort and medical hardship and the treating physicians instruct the nurses to, ‘just grab this leg and…’ and the staff in the room basically manhandle this woman like she is a mannequin…or an unruly roll of cut carpet…or a sack of concrete, even. I don’t remember having the visceral reaction to that scene when I was a girl that I did this time, because I had never up to then experienced that actual treatment in my life. I wasn’t (yet) viewed with my humanity stripped away when I was girl; as just a body; just a vehicle to house a baby; just a machine with malfunctioning parts. I have experienced that now.

The patient in this episode was a vehicle to advance Dr. Greene’s character. I still felt the intended empathy for Dr. Greene at the end of the show. But this time, I couldn’t help but be terribly troubled by how often women are stripped of their humanity in fiction to orchestrate someone else’s story. And I am even more terribly troubled by how flippantly women’s medical concerns and needs are considered in reality as well as fiction, particularly when it comes to reproductive health and decisions.
Pregnancy and delivery are serious health events in the lives of anyone who has a functioning uterus. They come with very real risks. And I just wish the concerns of the actual uterus owners would be taken seriously and considered with care…whether or not they want to endure the risks of pregnancy and delivery at all…if they are having problems during pregnancy or delivery…if they want to ensure they can’t become pregnant again or ever. These aren’t just ‘no big deal,’ and these aren’t concerns that doctors or lawmakers or anyone else should ignore, dismiss, gloss over, or make decisions about without listening to and actually considering the owners of the bodies involved and their very real humanity.

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