Members of the 'Honorary Pediatric Society' gather to celebrate Vanessa Perez's last day of chemotherapy. From left to right: Jacob Adler, Grace Mitchell, Vanessa Perez, Camilo Derya Rivera (author) and Michael Arthur.
Members of the 'Honorary Pediatric Society' gather to celebrate Vanessa Perez's last day of chemotherapy. From left to right: Jacob Adler, Grace Mitchell, Vanessa Perez, Camilo Derya Rivera (author) and Michael Arthur. (BALTIMORE SUN)

I remember the exact moment last year when the doctors told me I had a tumor growing in my brain.

I was at rehearsal for my final high school drama production before graduation when I got a text from my mom telling me to go to the hospital immediately. The day before, on President's Day, I had gone to the hospital for an MRI. I was suffering from severe headaches and, although the referring neurologist thought I had a case of high school senior stress, I felt I needed an MRI just to be safe. The results showed I was right to worry.


I walked to the hospital where a neurosurgeon sat me down and said those two words that would echo in my head for months afterward: brain tumor. My first thought was "does this mean I can't be in the play?"

I was admitted to the pediatrics floor of MedStar Georgetown University Hospital diagnosed with a left skull base meningioma brain tumor — a diagnosis so rare in someone under the age of 18 that it took another two weeks to confirm. I underwent a craniotomy, and a section of the tumor was sent off for analysis. It was benign. I was discharged after a month in the hospital and returned to school in late March. I didn't get to perform in the play.

A month after getting discharged, I went back to the hospital to visit a friend and ran into a nurse who had treated me. She said I should look up "Red Band Society," a new show coming out about teens in a hospital forming a secret society, united by their struggles. It was a familiar scenario. I had created my own sort of secret society of teen patients when I was in the hospital; we called ourselves the "Honorary Pediatric Society," HPS for short.

Being alone most of the day in a hospital with an unclear future is lonely, so I walked the pediatrics floor looking for other teenage patients to talk to. I met two patients, then three, four and five, until we had our own hospital social clique. We gave each other some bit of happiness and comfort through the frightening, often-depressing conditions and treatments we all faced.

I was excited to see the life that my fellow patients and I lived portrayed on TV. But when the pilot and subsequent episodes came out, I could not have been more disappointed. There was the preachy tone of a coma patient and the Hollywood appearance of all the actors, who looked as if they were not sick at all. The hospital rooms were huge and perfectly decorated, characters' emotions were more directed at petty romances between each other then their deadly conditions, and even the hospital food was presented as world class — an obvious fiction.

The entertainment industry has a tendency to do this to any show portraying real life. In crime dramas, somehow the detectives always win; in war dramas every one feels proud and patriotic; and in hospital dramas, doctors cure most patients. The common argument is that it's entertainment, and it should not be taken seriously. This may be true, but Red Band's gross misrepresentation felt personal.

To be fair, there were moments where I felt a connection, like when one of the characters, Dash, tried to use his condition to get girls — something I have admittedly done (successfully, unlike Dash). I also related to another character, Kara, not caring about her condition until the minutes before surgery truly scared her. I wished the show focused on these moments, but they were short-lived.

Each one of my friends, the members in our own hospital group, felt the same way. One girl, who went through chemotherapy for a possibly malignant stomach tumor, thought it was offensive for one character to go bald from chemo but still keep his bushy eyebrows. Another was bothered by how much energy the characters had when medication and treatment deprives you of so much. One patient was frustrated by the freedom the TV characters had in the hospital, when most of the time, the reality is you are laying in bed, alone.

The show claims, "Everyone thinks that when you go to a hospital life stops. But it's just the opposite, life starts." I could not help but shed a tear thinking of the living hell a hospital is to my friends still in there. It's lonely and frightening, with the constant fear that you'll get worse or that your condition will come back even if treated.

My friends and I expected to see some of that in this show, to be represented. We wanted this show to make us feel safe, we wanted this show to understand the pain we went through. We wanted this show to make others going through the same terror feel a sense of understanding.

We were let down. We got the Hollywood hospital instead.

Camilo Derya Rivera is a first-year student at Columbia University. His email is cdr2138@columbia.edu.