Movie & TV Nurses

Life in the “ER”

Revisiting the long-running medical drama

RN Hathaway standing next to phone with scrubs on and stethoscope around her neck

I used to think that binge-watching television was for slackers who had nothing better to do with their time. Two years of social isolation, however, has led me to discover the joy of rewatching a show I’d loved, especially now that I can see it without commercial interruptions and watch multiple episodes in succession.

That’s how I found myself enjoying afternoons with “ER” on the HBO Max platform.

Award-Winning Drama

Until “Game of Thrones” came along, “ER” held the record for the most Emmy nominations of any TV show in history: 123 during its 15-year run on NBC, which began in 1994. Created by writer Michael Crichton, it had the snappy, fast-paced, medical-insider dialogue we all love.

Many of the original cast members, including George Clooney and Julianne Margulies, went on to greater fame. “ER” even garnered a George Foster Peabody Award, given to shows that are “powerful and enlightening.”

The show’s writers visited local ERs looking for interesting cases to incorporate into their scripts; many of the plotlines that seem far-fetched are actually true. Each episode includes several diagnoses or medical procedures, so, like all nurses watching medical shows, part of the fun for me is to figure things out before the characters do.

The Carol Hathaway Saga

I always watch medical shows with a critical eye for the way that nurses are portrayed. The most prominent nurse character on “ER” is nurse manager Carol Hathaway (Julianna Margulies), who at first seems to be completely unflappable. She never rushes, always has whatever she needs in the pockets of her jacket and is able to jump into a code without hesitation. Generally, her work is unimpeachable, and she is beloved by her staff.

We soon realize, however, that her personal life is falling apart. Spoiler alert: Before the end of the first episode, Hathaway becomes a patient in her own ER after attempting to commit suicide with an overdose of barbiturates, which she’s been diverting from patients.

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She survives and later returns to work, although there’s little further mention of her drug diversion — even in 1995, you would think there would be some kind of investigation.

Although the aftermath of Hathaway’s suicide attempt never gets as much screen time as it seems like it should, we do learn a lot about her situation. In Season One, we’re briefly introduced to her devoted mother, a Russian immigrant. From this short interlude, we see that Hathaway is a striver, determined to better herself. Her father is dead (later, it’s implied he may have committed suicide), which may have something to do with her poor relationships with men.

Hathaway struggles to keep her personal and professional lives separate, without much luck. She has mixed feelings about her impending marriage to a handsome orthopedic surgeon, John “Tag” Taglieri (Rick Rossovich), and isn’t even able to verbalize her feelings about him. Meanwhile, she has an on-again, off-again affair with a former boyfriend who’s another ER resident: Doug Ross (George Clooney), a charming but irresponsible womanizer.

The other nurse characters have less important roles. Besides participating in the frequent codes, they call for security, hand doctors the charts, keep the doctors updated on patients, and monitor whatever trouble the new residents are getting into.

Changing Times for Nurses

While I want to complain that the writers didn’t show off the nurses’ skills adequately, it’s important to remember that the 90s were a time of great change for the nursing profession. No longer were nurses functioning solely as the right hand of the doctor — this was the period when nurses began to be regarded as independent critical thinkers.

One of the most interesting reflections of this change comes in a later season, where Hathaway partners with a nurse practitioner to start a free clinic. Surprisingly, the writers never have Hathaway herself consider becoming an NP (although she’s said to have a master’s degree), but they do flirt with the idea of having her attend medical school.

RN Career Events

Eventually, Hathaway stays true to her profession and remains a nurse. However, she drops out of the show at the end of Season Six to move to Seattle, although she returns for a few later guest appearances.

It’s tempting to examine “ER” as an historical document. It depicts a time when the RN role became increasingly difficult as we began to deal with more equipment, more medication, and more and much sicker patients who were discharged sooner.

The show also debuted when issues like sexual harassment were beginning to be taken more seriously. Watching it today, we can be proud of how far we’ve come since then.

Workplace Drama or Soap Opera?

Mostly, like any good drama, “ER” brings us back each week to see what will happen next. Some great storylines include Dr. Benton (Eriq La Salle) dealing with his mother’s dementia and how the family bonds to care for her, and another resident, Susan Lewis (Sherry Stringfield), dealing with a drug-addicted, pregnant sister who comes to live with her because she has nowhere else to turn.

While a good deal of each episode is devoted to the fascinating personal lives of the staff, the show’s depiction of the ER seems accurate for the time.

“ER” is particularly good at capturing the relentlessness of the work and the exhaustion that ensues. (Several early episodes begin with a disoriented character waking in the hospital to someone shouting at them about something critical that needs to be done immediately.)

As for the many dramatic twists and turns, in my first nine months after graduation, I worked in a labor & delivery unit in a large inner-city hospital in Washington, D.C., where a head nurse attempted suicide and an assistant head nurse was put on a three-day psych watch after physically abusing a CNA. My carpool buddy had a romantic affair with a married resident. So, even the soap opera aspects of “ER” weren’t too far from the truth.

(I like to think that today’s nurses are too busy and much too professional for anything like that — besides which, administration and HR departments today are quicker to note and respond to looming emotional problems with stiffer consequences.)

Fifteen seasons of any television show is a lot to watch, and I must admit to not having rewatched all of “ER” yet.

Still, I don’t consider it a waste of my time to sit on my couch with a cup of coffee and the remote in my hand to revisit Chicago County Hospital, a place that feels as familiar as if I worked there myself. It’s definitely good television.

CHRISTINE CONTILLO, RN, BSN, PHN, is a public health nurse with more than 40 years of experience, from infants to geriatrics. She enjoys volunteering for medical missions.


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