Apparently I’m not the only person who can’t stop thinking about this fictional example, and it makes sense: Not only are pop culture moments frequently imprinted in our psyches in ways we don’t expect, but “Scrubs” has often been called the most realistic medical show on TV. Many people on social media have shared clips from the episode, including a woman who tagged series protagonist J.D. (Zach Braff) and wrote, “I showed this to my kids and I think it made a bigger impact than anything else I’ve said.” Braff retweeted her video, which now has 1.4 million views.
The incident starts in typical wacky “Scrubs” fashion: The janitor (Neil Flynn) has a pet bird named Sanchez that lives in the hospital. Dr. Kelso (Ken Jenkins), the irritable chief of medicine, is quite angry when he sees Sanchez flying around: “That disease-infested scavenger is a serious health risk!”
After some jokes by nemesis Dr. Cox (John C. McGinley) about how Kelso’s breath is the real top cause of death in the hospital, Kelso lays down the facts: Infection is the No. 1 killer. The show illustrates his point with the image of a glowing green light, visualizing the spread of an infection along a path that at first seems inconsequential: A woman wipes her son’s nose. But then that woman shakes a doctor’s hand. Then that doctor drops some files and a nurse bumps into him. Then that nurse touches a patient’s arm. At each handshake, bump and touch, the green light jumps to another person.
“And just like that,” Kelso says, “You have a patient in trouble.”
Also in typical “Scrubs” fashion, this lesson comes back around in a heart-wrenching way when J.D. fires a medical intern named Cabbage for incompetence.
“As much as I was gonna miss him, I was just lucky to get rid of him before he really hurt someone,” J.D.'s voice-over says in a scene soundtracked by Coldplay’s “Fix You,” as Cabbage picks up a stray exam glove and throws it away. The audience knows something Cabbage does not: His hand immediately glows green, as he decides to say goodbye to Mrs. Wilk, a beloved older patient just recovered from an illness and about to go home.
“You’ve always been really nice to me, and I just wanted to say thanks,” Cabbage says, shaking her hand. Mrs. Wilk is moved by the gesture, and when he leaves the room, she brings her hands to her face — and the green light starts to spread all over her body. In the beginning of the next episode, it’s revealed she contracted an infection and doesn’t have long to live.
The doctors never find out why Mrs. Wilk suddenly got sick again, but it’s too late.