Issue 32 / 26 August 2013

I HAVE a confession, and it isn’t easy for me to say — I am an Offspring fan.

Every Wednesday night I would sit down with my wife and watch the adventures of neurotic Nina, a young Melbourne obstetrician and the show’s protagonist. Initially I was “forced” but, have to admit, I actually grew to like it.

For those of you living under a rock for the last couple of weeks, the penultimate episode of season four aired earlier this month and caused quite a stir. They killed Patrick — heart-throb, popular anaesthetist and Nina’s partner. It was a random tragedy.

As a 30-year-old Melbourne anaesthetist, I particularly felt the senseless loss of Patrick but that was not the real controversy, although Offspring enthusiasts will agree that Jimmy — Nina’s vacuous brother — should have died instead.

What really disappointed me was how poorly and inaccurately Offspring handled the topic of organ donation.

It was an opportunity missed.  

Mass media has an audience that many in health can only dream of. Media can speak to millions whereas doctors speak to only a few at a time. Impressions created by media underpin many of the conversations doctors have with patients.

So it’s important that the media gets it right, and doesn’t create angst where none is due. In fact, it’s not just important, it’s a responsibility that should not be taken lightly.

Patrick was knocked down by a slow-moving car and bumped his head. Initially he was OK, but lost consciousness some time after and was rushed to hospital. He subsequently died, having apparently suffered a subdural haemorrhage, but the pathology is mostly unimportant in the way this episode failed to grapple with the issue of organ donation.

The scene was set by a surgeon who brusquely appeared in the waiting room to break the bad news of Patrick’s death to a heavily pregnant Nina, and disappeared just as quickly. No introduction. No explanation. No empathy.

The conversation about organ donation occurred in the open waiting room some time later with a transplant coordinator who was portrayed as a clipboard-carrying vulture on a tight schedule.

“How we going?” she asked, as Nina bid her tearful farewell to Patrick.

“Just one more minute”, came the sobbing, pleading response.

This is not what it’s like.

I am not a transplant or organ donation expert, however I have completed my anaesthesia training in a transplant centre. During that time I’ve been involved in many family discussions about donation and in the transplants themselves.

Transplant coordinators and the entire team of professionals devoted to organ and tissue transplantation are among the most dedicated and sensitive that I’ve ever worked with. As well, Australia’s outcomes following organ and tissue transplantation are among the best anywhere.

Despite this, Australia has one of the lowest uptakes of organ donation in the developed world — which is why it’s so crucial to present accurate information in the popular media.

This episode of Offspring was watched by 1.7 million people, and it was the top-trending topic on Twitter after the show. This no doubt did wonders for Channel Ten’s ratings but it also gave a lot of people the wrong idea about organ donation.

Australia has some outstanding resources available to the public explaining the facts and realities of organ donation. The Australian Government initiative, DonateLife, and the non-government-organisation, Transplant Australia, both have accessible and factual information. It’s safe to say that 1.7 million Australians did not view this information while watching Offspring.

In any controversy lies opportunity. This presents us all an opportunity to talk about organ donation with our patients — and our friends and family for that matter — before tragedy strikes.

Organ donation and transplantation saves lives. If handled well — the way it overwhelmingly is in real life — organ donation gives hope to thousands of recipients and their families. It also has the potential to provide purpose for families of people struck down, like Patrick, by tragedy.

Discussing this in advance will never make the decision to donate easy, but it might make it easier.

We are fortunate in Australia to have such a safe and successful publicly funded organ transplantation program. Doctors know this. Let’s take the opportunity to make sure our patients know this too.

Dr Simon Hendel is an anaesthesia fellow completing a fellowship in aeromedical retrieval in remote North Queensland.

7 thoughts on “Simon Hendel: Missed opportunity

  1. deniseks_syd says:

    Thanks Swood for joining Oops Offspring. Our voice is a small one, but everything starts small. Maybe with time media producers/ creators will get the message that how important issues are represented on the screen can influence people. And hopefully, they will feel the responsibility to do it better and more accurately.


  2. Jay says:

    This was a really interesting read. I also wrote about this topic a couple of weeks back, after the episode aired.

    I saw it completely differently. I’m not coming from a medical perspective, but from an experiential one, and was happy that organ donation was even mentioned. How often do we see these scenes played out in TV dramas and movies with no reference at all? I thought the message that Patrick was an organ donor who ‘felt very strongly about it’ was commendable.  I can see that there could have been more involvement and compassion from the medical team, but in a fast-paced and eventful 60 minutes, I think they did quite well to raise awareness.

  3. Brent Driscoll says:

    So, the bit about doctors driving subdurals to hospitals is normal? Phew!

    Thanks. Was a grand opportunity missed.

  4. Sarah wood says:

    Thanks so much for taking the time to publicly voice  husband , a doctor ( who i too forced to sit through offspring with me 🙂 was much more upset by the medical misrepresentation than Patricks death…..   He forwarded me this article today. I have joined ‘offspring oops’ and reposted. Producers have a such public responsibility to get such important issues correct.

  5. Denise Schmiedeberg says:

    Thanks for this article, Simon. I think that for most of us, who work/ worked in the hospital environment, episode 12 of Offspring was a great disappointment.

    The day after the episode aired I created a Facebook page (Oops Offspring), to start a conversation about the poor representation of such important issues. While I attracted viewers to the page, by inviting them to comment on issues of lesser importance, such as continuity issues, my main focus was to highlight the poor representation of medical issues.

    On Oops Offspring I posted comments from Share Life Australia and other health professionals that voiced their opinions and concerns, following episode 12. Today, I posted the link to your article.

    I also posted the link to your article on the Offspring On 10 Facebook page (hosted by channel 10) and I tweeted the link to the show writers.

    Oops Offspring Facebook page:

  6. Angela Keen says:

    I whole heartedly agree with your article. I too watched the Offspring episode and was deeply disappointed with how this important topic was handled. It was so poorly handled I was more upset about that aspect of the season finale, than Patrick dying. It made the doctors and nurses look cold and callous, with no empathy for the grieving family. I too, took to social media after the episode to voice the utter disgrace with which a very important topic was handled. If anything it may have turned some people off donating if that is how they thought the real families were treated.

  7. Peter Donahue says:

    Well said, Simon. Unfortunately your article probably won’t be read by any of the production staff for the show, although it would be a good thing for someone to send it to them. The even more saddening thing is that many of these shows have a doctor or nurse available to help with script writing – an Anaesthetist friend of mine in the UK was the medical advisor to Coronation Street for many years and he helped correct such blunders. Maybe the makers of “Offspring” don’t have a budget for this but a quick phone call to any of the relevant specialist colleges or the transplant associations. A lost opportunity indeed.

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