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NBC's 'ER' is in pretty good shape, doctors, nurses say

John Harris and Tracey Housten live in a house divided.

Wife Tracey, a registered nurse who has worked with trauma patients, loves "ER," the NBC television show about life in a Chicago hospital emergency room that has become the ratings hit of the new season. She hates to miss it.

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Husband John, an emergency room nurse at Northwest Hospital Center in Randallstown, hates "ER." With a passion.

"She really enjoys the show," says Mr. Harris, his face contorted into the I-can't-believe-anyone-watches-this-trash look of a man who truly doesn't understand. "I usually watch probably the first half of it, get disgusted and go to sleep."

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Mr. Harris may be in the minority. An informal and highly random poll of doctors and nurses in the Baltimore area suggests that most who have seen "ER," which airs at 10 tonight on WMAR-Channel 2, enjoy it.

While admitting the show plays a bit loose with reality -- no emergency room is that frantic, and even fans find themselves cringing at some of the procedures they see on the screen -- many say they enjoy the hourlong drama and believe it paints a fairly accurate picture of their profession.

"I think it is a reasonable representation of what goes on in a busy modern hospital today," says Dr. Stephen Cohen, chief of the Department of Urology at Sinai Hospital, "although it condenses a week's worth of activity into an hour. If you had that much going on . . . I mean, a nuclear war would not create that much activity. But I give them dramatic license to condense it."

Dr. Phil Militello, of the University of Maryland Shock Trauma Center, agrees. "It seemed like there was a strong degree of realism as to what happens in an E.R.," he says. "There were some technical non-truisms . . . but overall, it was quite realistic."

"ER" was created by "Jurassic Park" author Michael Crichton, who attended Harvard Medical School in the 1960s before becoming a full-time writer. The show, which took only a few weeks to blow its competition on CBS, "Chicago Hope," to an

earlier hour, relies on an ensemble cast consisting largely of unknowns. Going in, the most familiar faces belonged to Sherry Stringfield (who played an assistant district attorney and David Caruso's ex-wife on "NYPD Blue") and Anthony Edwards, the hyper-allergic bubble man from "Northern Exposure."

Featuring what seems like a zillion plot lines each episode, "ER" spotlights doctors and nurses dedicated to what they do -- often, the show suggests, at considerable cost to their personal lives. The show bears little resemblance to the "Ben Caseys" and "Marcus Welbys" of old, and differs from such lauded ancestors as "St. Elsewhere" by concentrating even more on life within the confines of the emergency room.

Professional praise for "ER" centers on its adroit and accurate use of medical language, its on-target attempts to portray the way doctors and nurses have to struggle with their emotions when dealing with patients (several doctors praised an episode where a terminally ill old man sought to spend his last hours with his wife) and the camaraderie that exists within the room.

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"They show you the team approach," says Dr. Betty Tso, an attending physician for the University of Maryland Hospital Department of Emergency Medicine. "It's sometimes like it's the E.R. against the world. . . . It's sort of like a zoo, a war zone, a Grand Central Station sort of feeling."

Several doctors especially identified with the medical student played by Noah Wyle, who spends much of his time on the show looking lost and more than a little intimidated.

"The first time he gave a suture, and he didn't know which end to start on, that was me," laughs Dr. Cohen.

Whether medical professionals enjoy the show seems to depend on whether they are willing to overlook the mistakes and get caught up in the drama. Mr. Harris, a nurse in the Northwest Hospital emergency room for two years, isn't. He takes issue, for instance, with the show's feverish pace.

"When you watch the show, it's bam! the door opens up, here comes this patient, they're doing all these things to this patient, and the next thing you know they're pulling off their gloves -- or they're not pulling off their gloves, just wearing dirty gloves -- and the patient's off to the O.R. somewhere," he complains.

"And then no sooner do they turn around, after talking to one another or kissing in the middle of the E.R. -- and, bam! the doors open again and there's another trauma coming in."

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Mr. Harris is getting warmed up now.

"The way that the doctors treat the nurses on this show goes back 25 years, the way they are demeaning to nurses. They're making this one nurse with the dark hair . . . all she seems to do is walk around and be flirtatious with the other doctors. Making out in the middle of an emergency room is a bit much."

Among the medical profession, nurses may be the show's toughest critics. The show doesn't reflect the expertise they bring to their treatment of patients, some say, but depicts them as little more than oversexed physician's assistants.

"I watch it every week to see how angry it's going to make me," says Mary Nelson, nursing supervisor at the University Hospital. "I think that some of the characterizations of the patients and the physicians are excellent. But I think it's a travesty the way nurses are portrayed.

"I guess the biggest thing is the soap opera quality, that's what I don't like about it. If it's really supposed to be portraying us, and thousands of people are watching this every week. . . . My neighbors honestly believe that's what I do all day. It makes me very angry that a truly dedicated group of people are just portrayed as kind of ancillary, superfluous personnel in our unit."

Not all nurses see it that way, however. Some think just the opposite, that the show accurately depicts how doctors and nurses work together in the E.R. -- and there's nothing ancillary about it.

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"I think it's done a lot for the specialty of emergency nursing," says Tina Davidson, nurse manager for the Northwest emergency room. "The first night the show came on, I called my parents in the middle of the show and said, 'This is what I do. Watch it and learn it.' "

If nothing else, some fans say, "ER" is helping patients understand the emergency room better. Dr. Susan Owens, chief of the emergency room at Northwest, thinks so. "If you're really busy and you can't get to somebody right away . . . I'll say, 'You've probably seen the show and you know what it's like,' and they'll say, 'Oh, yes, no problem.' They're more understanding of our role as a result of seeing this fictional depiction of what we do."


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