[4 September 2012]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
“It’s absolute life or death stress, where basically, people’s lives are hanging with every decision you make.” Dr. Andrew Dennis smiles and shakes his head as he describes his work in the trauma unit in Chicago’s Stroger Hospital. The daunting violence in the city has made headlines this summer, and Chicago Trauma makes clear at least one cause, the “roughly 100,000 gang members,” who also take their work seriously.
The show, premiering on 4 September on National Geographic Channel, represents all kinds of victims. Dennis, the attending trauma and burn surgeon, says his team sees 20 or 30 patients “on an average day,” with more on weekends or on hot nights. His unit is different from “the regular emergency department,” he explains, “Anything that is severe trauma comes to us.” The result is blood, everywhere—on the floor, on patients, on doctors’ scrubs. Victims come in with bullet wounds, stab wounds, and injuries sustained in car accidents; during this one hour of TV show, Dennis’ team deals with a man who’s been shot in the penis, two woman bleeding internally, and Tom, a young man who comes in technically dead, after he’s been stabbed. They brings him back, and then, while no one can be sure whether he’ll live or die, Dennis goes to talk with Tom’s mother, Kathleen. “When a patient comes in,” says Dennis, “I don’t know them, but I will have to go talk to someone who loves them. That is to me, the hardest thing. That adds a dimension to what you just did because now you hear about them as a person.” As Kathleen listens quietly, trying to comprehend how her life has now changed so drastically in a moment: her son survives, with brain damage due to teh fact that his heart stopped.
If the commercial breaks are distracting (and cue unnecessary repetition of basic plot points), Chicago Trauma reveals not only the victims’ pain, but also the doctors’ pragmatism, their efforts to save everyone and their simultaneous understanding of their own limits. “It’s really high highs and really low lows,” Dennis sums up, “But you do one amazing thing and you change someone’s stars forever.”