Doc Hollywood: UW Health Cardiologist Educates Scriptwriters and Producers

Movie clapperMADISON - In a classic episode of "ER," a surgeon drops a heart on the operating room floor, picks it up, brushes it off, and walks it over to the surgical table.


In an episode of "Grey's Anatomy," one of the show's several doctors deliberately sabotages a patient's ventricular assist device-she's in love with him, by the way-so he can move up the waiting list for a donor heart.


Dramatic? Sure. Accurate? Not even close.


Despite the best efforts of well-intentioned producers and scriptwriters to make the plots and storylines of their shows and movies as accurate as possible, sometimes the demands of melodrama and ratings trump the facts.


On June 11-12, Maryl Johnson, MD, the medical director of UW Hospital and Clinics' heart transplant program, was one of ten physicians to travel to Los Angeles, California to participate in the second annual Donate Life Hollywood Film Festival, doing her part to educate legions of film and TV producers, novelists and scriptwriters about the realities of organ donation and her job.


"The point is to give people a better idea of what we do in real life-what's real and what's not," says Johnson.


The event was created in 2007 by Donate Life Hollywood to address concerns that inaccurate TV and movie portrayals of organ donation and transplant were affecting people's willingness to donate organs.


Johnson was one of four doctors who helmed a panel called "Doctors Delve Deep." One of the big topics of discussion was the fact that Medicare places a thirty six-month limit on coverage for immunosuppressant drugs for patients who've received a kidney transplant to address end-stage renal failure. Without those drugs, notes Johnson, the grafts are likely to fail, requiring the patients to go back on dialysis, and many times to be listed for another kidney transplant. Johnson says there are ongoing efforts to obtain immunosuppressive coverage for the life of the kidney transplant, but she would love to see a TV or movie scriptwriter work this very real problem into an upcoming episode to increase public awareness if the issue.


The panel also fielded questions about the difficulties of getting adolescent transplant patients to follow their post-transplant medical care, as well as questions about the rules for medical-tourism transplants.


At the event's keynote dinner, Johnson found herself seated at a table with the writers and producers of the television show "Army Wives," there to receive an award for an accurate portrayal of a corneal transplant. During the weekend she also listened to a talk by "ER" medical producer Dr. Joe Sachs and had a lengthy discussion with a woman who was writing a mystery novel that involved organ donation.


"There was a lot of really good back and forth discussion," says Johnson. "People were genuinely interested in getting it right."


While at the event, Johnson got a chance to attend screenings of several transplant-related documentaries, including "Six Days," the moving story of a North Carolina mother who kept her brain-dead son on life support for an additional six days so he could celebrate his 12th birthday and legally donate tissue to a greater number of recipients.


"The bottom line is that organ donation saves lives," notes Johnson, who says she'd strongly consider attending next year's event as well. "The fact that we have organ donors is the reason people are able to be transplanted and go on to live happy, productive lives. If there's something we can be doing to manage the positive message of organ donation, I want to be part of that."

Date Published: 06/15/2010

News tag(s):  maryl r johnsonhearttransplantouruwhealth

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