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TV REVIEW

The Real 'E.R.' Pits Doctors Against Death

September 29, 1998|THOMAS H. MAUGH II | TIMES MEDICAL WRITER

"ER" may be gripping drama, but its medical cases are somewhat sterile compared to the grittier situations graphically depicted in the Learning Channel's "Trauma: Life in the E.R."

It's not for the squeamish. Filmed with a small digital camera, no lights and no sound boom, the show is able to get up close as emergency-room surgeons slice open the abdomen of a young man caught in an L.A. drive-by shooting.

You see them cranking a rib spreader to open the chest, watch horrified as they shove internal organs aside to reach a ruptured aorta before the man can bleed to death.

And you watch in amusement as another shooting victim, only an hour or two after the surgeons have removed a bullet from his chest, sits up and demands a cheeseburger from McDonald's before police cart him off in handcuffs. Maybe the fictional situations in NBC's "ER" aren't as absurd as they sometimes appear.

"Trauma" kicks off its third season tonight with a visit to L.A.'s Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center, where ER physicians see more than 1,000 gunshot wounds every year. Dr. Paul Walsh, a second-year resident, explains that he came here from his native Ireland because, despite the Irish "troubles," he had never before seen a gunshot wound.

The centerpiece of the show is Dr. Gracie-Ann Dinkins, a fifth-year surgical resident and two-time Olympian who runs for the Liberian national team. Dinkins struggles to save the life of another drive-by victim, a 17-year-old shot in his own driveway.

X-rays show Dinkins a bullet in the abdomen, and her first priority is to find any organs that might have been damaged by it. Only after the surgery is over does she discover that the bullet is the residue of another drive-by a year earlier.

"I don't like to lose, either as a 400-meter runner or as a trauma surgeon," Dinkins tells the camera. "It's a competition, but it's more than a competition. It's a fight to the death sometimes. And that's how I take it."

Sometimes death wins, however. The boy with the ruptured aorta ultimately dies, despite the team's best efforts, and Dinkins must tell his young wife and family. Dr. Brian Payne, a first-year resident, must also tell the wife of an elderly man with asthma that his internal organs ultimately failed him.

Those moments reveal that the years of schooling and training necessary to become a doctor are not the hardest part of the job after all.

* "Trauma: Life in the E.R." is shown at 5 and 8 p.m. today on cable's Learning Channel.

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