In the Media: Mercy Caps Groundbreaking Year for TV's Nurses

    • September 30, 2009

First came Nurse Jackie, a dark comedy on Showtime about an emergency-room nurse in New York City that premiered on June 8.

Then came HawthoRNe, a health drama on TNT about a hospital’s chief nursing officer that first aired on June 16.

Now there’s also Mercy, an NBC drama that launched on September 23, about three nurses who “navigate the daily traumas and social landmines of life and love both inside the hospital and out in the real world.” One of the nurse characters, and the show’s primary focus in the premiere, is Veronica Flanagan Callahan who after a tour in Iraq “knows more about medicine than all of the residents combined,” the network says.

Together, the trio of programs makes 2009 a groundbreaking year for TV nurses, who in recent years have tended to play subordinate or romantic characters in medical dramas and comedies.

Although Mercy debuted to mostly unfavorable reviews and middling ratings, it is sure to have a significantly larger audience than the other nurse-centered programs because it airs on a broadcast, rather than a cable, network.

Criticized for being one-dimensional, the series opened with Callahan saving the life of a car accident victim using a table knife and a straw, after a doctor on the scene begs off after noting, “I’m just really a dermatologist; I mostly do chemical peels.” For her trouble, Callahan is later chastised by an emergency room doctor for recommending tests for the patient she brought in: “Under what authority? You’re a nurse, ok? A nurse! I’ll handle it.” Nurse Callahan is then threatened by the victim’s fiancée who is surprised to learn that she is not a doctor: “You’re just some stupid nurse? If he dies, if he has so much as a scar, I swear to God I will sue you, the hospital and the city.”

Continuing the theme that skilled nurses get no respect, later in the episode Callahan offers a diagnosis that a doctor has missed. The doctor ignores her advice, and the patient dies.

A nurse character hasn’t dominated a major television show since Dana Delany played nurse Colleen McMurphy on China Beach from 1988 to 1991, according to Sandy Summers, R.N., M.S.N., M.P.H., author of the recently released book Saving Lives: Why the Media’s Portrayal of Nurses Puts Us All at Risk. And never before have three nurse-centered shows premiered in the same year, she says.

But are Veronica Callahan—and her Mercy colleagues—a realistic depiction of nurses today? What do you think? Tell us your impressions of the media’s new focus on nurses. Share your views at nursing@rwjf.org!