Medical dramas like the classics St. Elsewhere and ER, and the more recent House and Nurse Jackie, have done a lot to de-romanticize the image of doctors as warmly pleasant, always calm and ever-composed miracle workers that was created in the 1960s by shows such as Marcus Welby, M.D.
Yet in the process of humanizing the healers, these realistically gritty and gory programs also tend to portray emergency rooms as theatres of non-stop, life-or-death drama and heroism. Or at least every patient who enters through the sliding class doors seems to have something exotic or interesting wrong with them.
But try to imagine an episode of ER where George Clooney rushes to the aid of an elderly gent suffering from a case of impacted cerumen -- the medical term for too much ear wax.
Or Anthony Edwards trying to explain to the mother of a rash-covered boy that Fanstastik bathroom cleaner is not meant for removing permanent-marker stains from skin.
Take it from a real-life Winnipeg ER doctor: While hospital emergency rooms can be "exhilarating, terrifying and hilarious" -- all within a single shift -- the red neon sign out front also seems to be a beacon for the bizarre.
"Yesterday, I treated a woman who had been bitten on the cheek by a horse," Dr. Donovan Gray writes in his new self-published memoir, Dude, Where's My Stethoscope?: and other stories from the ER.
(Some dude, a patient, did steal his stethoscope when he was a medical student.)
Gray, 51, who works at Victoria General Hospital, draws on his experiences in Winnipeg and in remote rural communities in northern Manitoba and Ontario for the book, which features more than 200 tales from the medical trenches, as well as vignettes from his other life as a husband and father.
It spans about 30 years, dating back to 1983 when the student of both arts and hard sciences found himself at an academic crossroads: honours English or medical school? The latter won out, of course, but his love of the written word remained.
Gray, who was born in Kingston, Jamaica, and spent his childhood there and in Quebec before moving to Winnipeg with his family, graduated from the University of Manitoba in 1990 with a degree in family and emergency medicine.
He wrote the book, he says over coffee, to give readers a look behind the scene of the medical front lines, in all its tragic, tedious, poignant and humorous glory.
But he wanted to give them a candid look. "I wanted to give people a look at the real world of an ER doc, not only the cases that went really well, but some of the other ones, too," says the Harley-riding doc, who has the kind of good looks and flashy grin needed to fit in with the cool kids on most of those TV medical dramas.
In other words, Gray decided to write about the man who came into the ER to personally thank him for saving his life after a heart attack that required nearly a dozen defibrillations, as well as the concussed and contused Guns N' Roses super fan who met the business end of a bat wielded by a Mtley Crºe disciple after their best-band-of-all-time debate turned sour.
The latter and his ilk are one category of regulars who frequent the ER, typically between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m., which Gray refers to in the book as the "Jethro Hour."
"That's when the bars close and dozens of our city's brightest and best stagger out into the streets to engage in the time-honoured tradition of nocturnal brawling," he writes. "Once the punch-ups have concluded, the vanquished slowly make their way to the nearest ER to get their boo-boos fixed... "
"Jethros" is Gray's nickname for the falling-down drunks who show up during the night shift, often necessitating the services of a mop-toting janitor. (The name is a reference to Jethro Bodine, the doltish oaf from The Beverly Hillbillies.)
"One of the my daughters ruled out medicine based on my vomit stories," says the father of three, whose children are 19, 18 and 17.
Gray, who spent several years working as a "cradle-to-grave" family physician in small-town Ontario before moving back to Winnipeg in 2003, says being an ER doctor can be gruelling for the shift work alone, never mind the pace and unpredictability.
"An ER is the final net where anyone and everyone can go for whatever reason," he says, whether that's a life-threatening injury or illness, a scammer trying to get a refill for a narcotic painkiller or someone who needs a doctor's note or a signature on an official form. Gray recalls being asked for a medical note stating a person needed to get a carpet in their apartment for health reasons.
"Every day, we see something that we've never seen before. There's no such thing as a routine day."
He estimates only five per cent of ER visitors have a legitimate medical emergency, while another 15 per cent present problems of a "reasonably urgent" nature. The remaining 80 per cent is a mixed bag that includes the "worried well" (hypochondriacs), people with colds and flus, those hoping to fast-track an appointment with a specialist and the elderly who are having difficulties living alone.
About one-third of ER visitors do not have a family physician.
During his most recent night shift, Gray saw 25 patients between midnight and 8 a.m. The only doctor in the hospital at that time, he also attended to a "code" upstairs and reapplied a cast for an inpatient.
"It's a sprint," says the doctor, whose dinner that night was four Digestive cookies and a cup of tea. "When you come in at midnight, the first person you see might have registered eight or nine hours before. You feel pretty guilty if you take a dinner break."
Around twice a year, he says, the unthinkable happens: You can lie down for a nap.
To learn more about Gray and his book ($22 online or at McNally Robinson Booksellers), visit www.dudewheresmystethoscope.ca.