Onscreen Moments That Get Nursing Right (and Some That Still Don’t)

Movie and tv moments that got nursing right and times they didn't

Chummy Browne from "Call the Midwife" is sitting and looking at a baby that she is holding in her arms.

Movies and TV shows aren’t known for accurately portraying the multifaceted roles of nurses.

“Chicago Hope” seems to have only one nurse who works on a different unit each episode. “ER” shows doctors doing the nurses’ jobs, while Grey Sloan Memorial, where “Grey’s Anatomy” takes place, is apparently the only hospital on the planet that functions with no nurses whatsoever!

But sometimes, movies and TV shows do hit the right note, presenting a scene that captures the real spirit of being a nurse. From funny scenarios to poignant human interactions, here are four onscreen moments that ring true.

When Disrespecting a Nurse Means Digging Your Own Grave

The cult classic TV comedy “Scrubs” is known for its goofy humor, following the journey of physicians from Day One of their medical residencies. Although the series is more about doctors than nurses, this spoofy sitcom does a surprisingly nice job of capturing nurse-doctor dynamics.

In the first season of “Scrubs,” new M.D. resident Elliot Reid (Sarah Chalke) decides to throw experienced nurse Carla Espinosa (Judy Reyes) under the bus. Both Elliot and Carla miss a key patient assessment — but when the resident is scolded by her attending physician, she places the blame on the nurse. Big mistake.

Over the course of the episode, Elliot comes to realize that it’s in her best interests to apologize to Carla. However, as she contemplates further defending herself, the show gives us a flash-forward preview of Elliot’s fate if she keeps on the way she’s going: a fantasy sequence in which Elliot literally digs the grave at her own funeral as the hospital’s nursing staff watches over her.

Hats off to “Scrubs” for showing physicians the importance of establishing respectful relationships with nurses.

When You Rise to a Challenge

In an episode of the popular BBC drama “Call the Midwife,” newly arrived nurse Chummy Browne (Miranda Hart) is called to attend her first solo delivery. While examining the expectant mother, Chummy discovers that the baby is presenting in the breech position and will be a high-risk birth.

Chummy excuses herself from the room, shaking with fear; during nurses’ training, she had watched only half of a breech delivery before fainting. Chummy stands in the hall for a moment to collect her courage, then reenters the room to calmly and steadily guide the mother through a successful delivery.

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When the doctor finally arrives, he sees Chummy firmly in control and declares, “It looks to me as if the nurse is managing things beautifully.”

Getting called to handle a high-stakes emergency for the first time is a rite of passage for a nurse. After facing down the terror comes the exquisite pride of having met the moment.

That Feeling When a Patient Turns a Corner

In the 2004 romantic comedy 50 First Dates, Henry (Adam Sandler) meets Lucy (Drew Barrymore), a young woman who suffers from memory loss that causes her to repeatedly forget everything that’s recently happened to her.

Despite the challenges of falling in love with the forgetful young woman, Henry becomes committed to helping Lucy remember who she is and why she is so important to everyone around her.

Henry puts together a video for Lucy to watch every day to help her orient herself with regard to person, place and time. In the movie’s final scene, Lucy watches the video (without panicking as she had so many times before) as everything suddenly makes sense to her.

If you’ve ever cared for a patient with memory loss disorder or other cognitive impairment, you know how challenging it can be for both of you to effectively communicate. Watching Lucy put the pieces of her life together evokes those moments in a patient’s recovery when he or she turns a corner.

Patients with cognitive impairment have their good days and their bad days. On the good days, we celebrate those moments of clarity, no matter the size of the milestone, whether it’s the moment when a head injury patient remembers their loved one’s name for the first time since their accident or when a dementia patient correctly says, “Today is Wednesday.”

When a Patient Is Finally at Peace

One of the most difficult parts of being a nurse is watching a patient succumb to fatal injury or incurable illness. When patients are near the end of life or in hospice care, nurses do their best to keep them comfortable and prepare them to make a peaceful transition.

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There is a poignant reminder of this in the 1996 romantic drama The English Patient (based on the novel by Michael Ondaatje). In the film, Hana (Juliette Binoche), a Canadian nurse stationed in Italy during WWII, cares for a mysterious patient (Ralph Fiennes) who is bedridden and dying of severe burns.

Through flashbacks, Hana begins to piece together his story. She learns that while the patient (who turns out to be a Hungarian mapmaker named Almásy, not an Englishman) sustained his life-threatening burns in a plane crash, he’s also dying of a broken heart: Almásy’s torrid love affair with his colleague’s wife (Kristin Scott Thomas) ended in tragedy.

On his deathbed, Almásy asks his nurse to help him end his pain. Hana, who has fought hard to keep him alive, honors his request. Weeping, she administers a dose of morphine sufficient to euthanize her terminally ill patient, reading him excerpts from Katherine’s journal as he drifts off.

Of course, nurses are absolutely NOT administering lethal doses of opioids! However, if you’ve ever held the hand of a patient as they slip peacefully away, the scene may bring tears to your eyes.

And Moments That Still Make Us Cringe

While we know that Hollywood can get nursing right, it often seems that for every positive depiction, there are still many more that are demeaning, infuriating or just plain insulting. Here are two that rubbed me the wrong way.

Before Men In Nursing Were Respected

I’ve worked with so many great men in the nursing profession that I actually forgot that some people once saw our male colleagues as a novelty — that is, until I recently rewatched Meet the Parents.

In this 2000 comedy, RN Greg Focker (Ben Stiller) is introduced to his girlfriend’s family, including her tough-guy father, Jack (Robert DeNiro). When Greg reveals that he’s a nurse, he is greeted with endless mockery. For instance, during a competitive game of pool volleyball, a family member snidely suggests that it would help “if Florence Nightingale over here would play a little defense.” Meet the Parents didn’t invent these contemptuous attitudes towards men in nursing, but it did turn those prejudices into snappy, quotable gags.

Fortunately, Hollywood has more recently shown men in nursing in a better light, with characters like senior nurse Jesse Salander (Luis Guzmán) on the CBS series “Code Black,” whose wisdom even the physician residents rely on.

When a TikTok Nurse Films From a Patient’s Room

The late-night comedy show “Saturday Night Live” might lead viewers to believe that nurses on social media haven’t heard of a thing called HIPAA.

A December 2021 sketch had pop singer Billie Eilish playing a “dancing nurse,” filming a TikTok video from a patient’s room while the patient is in view! (Nurse Billie, you might want to reconsider posting that.)

What’s especially disheartening about this sketch is that it was probably inspired by a number of real nurses whose online video exploits have gone viral.

Let this be a lesson to us all: In addition to the potential professional consequences of violating a patient’s privacy on social media, remember that many eyes are watching — including, apparently, the writers of “SNL”!

ALEXA DAVIDSON, RN, MSN, is a freelance health writer and registered nurse with over a decade of experience in neonatal and pediatric cardiac intensive care.

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