nos-trum. pronunciation: \nos'-trum\. noun. Etymology: Latin, neuter of noster our, ours.
1. a medicine of secret composition recommended by its preparer but usually without scientific proof of its effectiveness.
2. a usually questionable remedy or scheme.
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Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Medical Mystery Shows: Dr. Kildare On Acid

The popularity of medical TV series, and new "Medical Mystery" newspaper series, betray a Hypochondriasis-By-Proxy:  we are all ill at heart.

WARNING:  Philosophical discussion to follow:  do not read if the Jerry Springer Show is your guide to The Meaning Of Life.

OK, I admit that one of the reasons I became a doctor was my fascination with the Dr. Kildare TV show when I was a kid.  But it wasn't just the medical storyline.  The actor portraying the sainted doctor, Richard Chamberlain, was very handsome and I hoped that manly attractiveness would be awarded to me along with the medical degree. Alas, I only got the paper.

What about Ben Casey, you may ask?  I watched that show, too, but Ben Casey (Vince Edwards) looked like a tough guy who came up from South Boston.  Kildare, on the other hand, had that patrician look, like a guy whose family came over on the Mayflower and whose forebears have gone to Yale since mustard plasters were invented.  To my mind the choice was simple.

Looking back, it was juvenile hero-worship, but the stories were realistic and centered around the patient:  a difficult diagnosis that turned out to be something we've all heard of before (multiple sclerosis, for instance), or a desperate operation when the odds were against success.  Still, the interaction of people--patients, doctors, nurses--was the object.  The disease was just a prop.

But in today's culture of entertainment, the people are the prop, and the disease is the object.

House, MD is a caricature of cocaine-addicted Sherlock Holmes.  The chief focus of the show is on some bizarre manifestation of a medical problem that might appear among humans at least once in 2000 years.  The interplay of characters merely supports the tracking down of mis-cues, false trails, and perverse incentives on the road to diagnosis.  Watching this collage of medical symptoms and tests, as they twist and intertwine, carries all the disorientation and mesmerizing dismay of a bad drug trip.

I've never been able to watch the medical shows for long.  ER turned me off from the get-go:  the verisimilitude to the real practice of medicine was thin, but seemingly true to a lay population of viewers.  My family got tired of me saying, "No!  That's not what you do in this situation!"  I watched House, MD a few times for the bitter humor, then quit and never came back.

Separate from my technical objections, these shows are continuing to drift away from concern for individuals, and focusing on freakish things--a carnival of the unlikely: rare disease as a modern-day boogey-man that's taken the place of our fear of the Bomb back in the 50's.  Watch out, there's MRSA everywhere!

Many authors have written about this social phenomenon and all its aspects:  sympathy fatigue, ambiguous families, legal adversarialism,  risk-taking behavior, the unborn as tissue,  reality shows (reality?), and all the rest.  The more we distance ourselves from each other, the more we invent substitutes like TV shows, social services and government regulation to overcome the lack of human connection.

The latest development in medical entertainment is the news media's series of "Medical Mystery" columns.  Combining the best sob-sister aspects of the Soap Operas with a shaggy dog story of drawn-out diagnosis--confounding the medical experts!--they are the new wave of journalistic decline.  With revenues falling, the main stream newspapers have found a way to become a Medical National Enquirer ("Baby Born With Three Heads!")

I'm not sure where this is all headed to.  I can't see us re-connecting with others in the near future:  our individual cocoons are fully spun, and we dream the hopes of larvae who can never mature.

I miss block parties, Cub Scouts, Math Club, and Little League... a childhood whirlwind of social togetherness.  Where these things still exist today, they are motivated only by parental competition.

Maybe a couple of micro-brews and an End-Of-The-World novel will help kill the pain.


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