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COVER STORY

LIFE (and Death) LESSONS

August 27, 2000|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

There's one heart-wrenching scene in ABC News' stunning new documentary series, "Hopkins 24/7," which never fails to make producer Terry Wrong crumble into tears: A young female patient at Johns Hopkins Hospital learns from her oncologist that her cancer has returned and she has precious little time to live.

"That is really a powerful moment," says Wrong. "It's a sacred moment for that woman and her family and even for the doctor."

Armed with small video cameras, a team of field producers and reporters spent three months, 24 hours a day, seven days a week at the Baltimore teaching hospital recently voted the best U.S. hospital by "U.S. News & World Report" for the 10th consecutive year.

"Hopkins 24/7" is the brainchild of ABC News' Phyllis McGrady, executive in charge of special programming who knew of popular series in Australia and England that focused on the inner workings of hospitals.

"She knew they had large numbers of viewers, and she thought this would really catch on in the States with all the attention that had been given to dramas like 'ER' and 'Chicago Hope,' " says Wrong.

"The question was, 'How could we inhabit a hospital in an interesting and dynamic way that would actually engage a network audience from week to week?"'

More importantly: Would a hospital even allow them the full access they needed to do the series?

It was up to coordinating producer Severn Sandt to find the perfect hospital.

"We wanted one with a pediatric intensive care unit," says Wrong. "We wanted it to be a teaching hospital."

After picking Hopkins as the medical center that met ABC's needs, there were several rounds of meetings between the ABC News producers and the hospital. "I compare them to the Middle East peace talks," says Wrong.

"The big issues were extremely sensitive ones, like patient confidentiality, what happens if staff members don't want to be videotaped, and what kind of editorial control will they expect to have, if any. Of course, the answer was none."

For producer Peter Bull, "Hopkins" was the most intense project he had ever done. "But, at the same time, it was the most exhilarating project."

On an average day, there were nine two-person teams of field producers and reporters covering their beats. Being witness to death and disease took its toll on the journalists. In fact, Hopkins even offered them counseling.

"They were with these people day in and day out," says Bull. "Some of our field producers had to stop working in a particular unit where they had, in effect, seen too much," adds Wrong. "Others really thrived on it."

Before these field teams picked up the camera, they spent weeks gaining the confidence and building up rapport with the doctors and the patients who agreed to have their stories recorded.

"The fact that we had familar faces let them open up to us," says Bull. "It was a cinema verite approach where you go in and spend months in a place and just being there all the time you are part of the scenery. They open up to you and the camera disappears. We had these tiny little cameras and it made it much easier for people to stay comfortable with you."

Both Bull and Wrong walked away from the project impressed with the doctors they profiled: Dr. Edward Cornell, chief of trauma surgery, who tries to save the victims of East Baltimore's violent street wars both in the operating rooms and in various outreach programs; Dr. Michael Ain, a little person who overcame the odds to become a top-flight surgeon; and eccentric and offbeat Dr. Rick Montz, considered one of the best surgical oncologists in the world.

"I found that, almost universally, the doctors and the staff were just amazingly altruistic, sensitive people," says Bull.

"This is an academy medical center," Bull adds. "Unlike a private institution where the money is, the money ain't here at Hopkins. But there is a reason why they are there: At Hopkins they can do cutting-edge research and treat patients."

*

"Hopkins 24/7" airs Wednesday and Thursday at 10 p.m. this week and Wednesdays at 10 p.m. through Sept. 27 on ABC.

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