‘Tis the season for binge-watching — but the media often flops in its portrayal of people with health conditions. So we’ve gathered patient perspectives on Hollywood depictions of illness and who’s gotten it right (thanks, Bea Arthur).
When doctors doubted Dorothy
A writer for The Mighty who has multiple health condition recently praised The Golden Girls for it’s portrayal of main character Dorothy navigating the healthcare system with a chronic condition. Over the course of a two-part episode (called “Sick and Tired”), Dorothy (played by Bea Arthur) starts feeling constant exhaustion and hops around to different doctors who don’t believe she has a real ailment.
“Maybe I am crazy — nobody believes me,” Dorothy laments to Rose (Betty White) after multiple appointments.
“Dorothy, you are not crazy, honey, you’re sick,” Rose replies. (Thank you for being a friend, Rose.)
Ultimately, Dorothy is relieved when a specialist finally diagnoses her with chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS). The show was ahead of it’s time in building credibility around CFS, which is just now gaining recognition as a serious longterm condition that shares many characteristics with some autoimmune conditions. Golden Girls creator Susan Harris based the episodes on her own experiences with CFS and doctors who didn’t understand the condition in the 1980s.
Other shows worthy of some applause
While no show does a perfect job, additional shows that The Mighty includes on a list of 7 TV Shows That Got Chronic Illness (Mostly) Right include:
- The West Wing — Writers consulted with the National Multiple Sclerosis Society to depict President Josiah Bartlett (Martin Sheen) and his relapsing-remitting MS. Some have argued the show didn’t capture all the symptoms and severity of the condition, but it raised awareness of MS.
- Brothers & Sisters — A young character named Paige (Kerris Dorsey) is diagnosed with type 1 diabetes after experiencing symptoms that real-world patients may experience, such as increased thirst and frequent urination. People with type 1 diabetes say the media often gets it wrong, so it’s refreshing that this show got it right.
- The Good Wife — Before playing a person with Parkinson’s disease (PD) on The Michael J. Fox Show (2013-2014), Fox (who has PD in real life) played a character with a neurological disorder called tardive dyskinesia on The Good Wife in 2010. The show gets props for featuring an actor with an actual health condition, playing a character who’s an aggressive attorney and not “just” a patient.
- Grey’s Anatomy — In general, hospital-based shows are known more for their romantic plot lines than their medical accuracy. But a 2016 episode called “Falling Slowly” captured some of what it’s like to get a rare diagnosis known as Ehlers-Danlos syndrome (a group of disorders affecting connective tissues in the body).
Speaking of Grey’s Anatomy, one of its stars, Kate Walsh, who played Dr. Addison Montgomery from 2005-2012, recently opened up about being a patient in real life. Walsh revealed that she had surgery in 2015 to remove a lemon-size brain tumor, which turned out to be a non-cancerous meningioma.
“I played a real badass on TV, but when it comes to being a patient, it’s such a vulnerable experience,” Walsh said.
More and more shows and movies are also depicting mental illness — and doing a better job of it than before. For example, Stranger Things recently got good reviews for raising awareness of some aspects of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The media’s increasing focus on mental illness — if done carefully and correctly — can be a positive thing overall, according to the American Psychiatric Association.
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