If television's population of fictitious and simon-pure doctors has often been told to "give it to me straight," RV hasn't been terribly straight in portraying the medical profession. Even last year's brave, gritty "Lifeline" was marred by public relations overtones and the occasional pronouncement of medical feats as having been "miracles."
There are no miracles, according to some of the real-life medical students seen in tonight's exceptional and enthralling NBC News special "NBC Reports: To Be a Doctor," at 10 on Channel 4. One young intern, already sensing some of the futility that will go with the job he has chosen, says, "I haven't seen too much magic."
The burden on these young men and women -- whose story hasn't really been told this responsibly on television before -- is that the job they've chosen is one of the few that still hold mythic status in the minds of us sick people. Television, with its messianic "Marcus Welby" and its imbecilic "Trapper John," has done nothing to discourage this.
"To be a Doctor" is a realistic hour that demonstrates that these people are vulnerable and fallible -- and sometimes so academic about matters of life and death as to seem inhumane. But it is also frequently encouraging about the state of the art and the artists. In some of these young faces one can see not only compassion and dedication but whatever particular strain of obsessiveness has led them to a doctor's demanding and frustrating life.
In particular, a 35-year-old Vietnam veteran, now a third-year medical student, is unpretentiously awesome in the zeal he brings to doctoring.
He was taken off obstetrics, he says, because he had too much enthusiasm: "I love the delivery of new babies! I didn't have one delivery I went through that my eyes were dry."
The program was filmed in Philadelphia, and first looks at students at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School. They learn about touching a patient for the first time, tinker over a cadaver, and hear a teacher say that when examining a patient, "you shouldn't display too many of their parts." t
"For us to decide right now whether we want to make $100,000 or $200,000 a year is frivolous," one student tells Brokaw, who pals around and manages to be instrumental and yet unobtrusive as a reporter -- except perhaps when he interrupts a class in stethoscopy to ask the teacher, "Do you think medicine is getting some bad knocks these days?"
Producer Tom Spain -- who, at CBS, produced such laudable reports as "The Fire Next Door" and "Anyplace But Here" with Bill Moyers -- makes the program more harrowing just as training gets more harrowing for the students. At the Philadelphia Veterans Hospital, they are confronted with living pain, hopelessness, bafflement.
A Mr. Stone, victim of apparent alcoholic sclerosis, cannot be helped, much less cured. He dies. Later in the program, at a West Philadelphia Hospital, the camera watches the choreographed pandemonium, far less tidy than TV doctor shows have made it look, in the emergency room. A 16-year-old boy has arrived there after spending New Year's Day jumping off the Market Street post office and onto a cement bridge 30 feet below.
He dies, too, but not before his chest has been opened to reveal a beating heart and doctors have cut away a large part of his skull to relieve pressure on the brain. This is a breathtaking sequence; Spain intercuts between the feverish procedures and post mortems by doctors and members of the boy's family.
Words like "unflinching" really just insult a program as solid and straight-forward as this. It isn't trying to make a point of failing to flinch. Spain is a superb reporter as well as a superb producer, and if he very obviously has an eye, he also, to be slightly corny about it, has a heart.