Lark Productions and The Knowledge Network Launch Emergency Room: Life and Death at VGH
By Pamela Fayerman for The Vancouver Sun
It has gripping life-and-death drama, a fast pace, and all the mayhem of a Hollywood action film. Except a new television series that will begin airing later this month is about real-life experiences as they unfold in the emergency ward of Vancouver General Hospital.
The weekly, six-part series on the Knowledge Network premieres Jan. 21 and is said to be the first Canadian documentary series filmed inside an ER.
If the first hour-long episode of Emergency Room: Life and Death at VGH is any indication, the show is not for the faint of heart, as cameras capture patients undergoing invasive, life-saving procedures.
Cameras are fixed on gaping wounds, including one of an intoxicated, needle-phobic patient who insists his hand be stitched up without any freezing. The patient flirts with a nurse in a bid, it would seem, to distract himself from the pain of having a doctor stitch his wound closed.
Humour, especially the wry, droll form, is a common way to cope in the ER, and it is on fine display on the part of both the health professionals and some of the patients. Says one hospital worker to another after a patient has swallowed their own vomit: “Can you still call it vomit if it’s swallowed?”
Dr. Doug McKnight, head of the emergency room at VGH, said the documentary doesn’t gloss over the fact that people die in the ER, despite the best intentions of health professionals. “Bad outcomes do occur on a daily basis by virtue of the fact that it’s where very ill people go. We’re all born to die, and it can be quite depressing, but hopefully what comes across for those who watch this series is that people are doing their best to save lives.”
The Knowledge Network partnered with Vancouver Coastal Health and Lark Productions to create the series. The goal was to give viewers an insider’s view of the ER. Today, the network launches a companion, interactive website — knowledge.ca/er — and on Jan. 15th, a special premiere of the series will be held at The Imperial on Main Street for ER staff. Also in attendance will be Knowledge Network CEO Rudy Buttignol, Mary Ackenhusen, the COO of Vancouver Coastal Health, and executives of Lark Productions.
Andrew Williamson, executive producer of the series, said there were six months of negotiations over logistics such as patient privacy and consent issues. Then 80 days of filming during a peak period for ER patient volumes — from February to May of last year. Camera crews were essentially embedded in the ER but stayed out of the way when the most vulnerable patients were being treated, such as those with mental health issues or the elderly with dementia.
“We wanted to focus on the front line staff, to show what people do day-to-day,” said Williamson. “It’s all a day’s work for them, but their work is actually quite heroic.”
Gavin Wilson, a spokesman for Vancouver Coastal Health, said that before filming began, hospital administrators addressed patient privacy, consents and ethical issues. “We wanted to make sure no one felt pressured to be part of this. Extraordinary efforts were made to ensure consents were obtained for anyone identified in the series. Anyone who didn’t give consent is blurred out or not shown.”
“The benefit is that the series will hopefully showcase the excellence in care delivered at VGH, and the fact that our staff are not only highly skilled but also compassionate,” said Wilson. “It puts a human face on not only the front-line nurses and doctors, but also the unsung heroes like social workers and respiratory therapists.”