In real life, a Fox News article by Peter Brown asserts, friends don't always look the other way when crimes are committed and rules are broken.
In fact, the columnist finds profoundly disturbing the show's message that it is normal, and to some degree acceptable, for people in a position to decide who lives and who dies to give their own emotions preference over the law and medical ethics.
Of course, it's only TV. But given the series' popularity and the topic's seriousness, Brown finds himself offended by a major story line of the hit show -- which he admits to finding extremely entertaining.
He's talking about when a surgical intern, Dr. Isobel "Izzie" Stevens (above), broke the law and medical canon to manipulate the way a heart transplant was allocated to save her fiance, Denny Duquette.
The show's failing, in this writer's opinion, is the inaccurate impression that the transplant process is capricious, can be easily manipulated, and if so, there's no real harm, since it's to help a friend.
Brown was lucky enough to receive a liver transplant in 2002. He became acquainted with the arduous process by which organs are allocated.
Organ transplants are the ultimate zero-sum game. For every patient saved, someone else is not. Many more eople need hearts, livers, lungs and kidneys than there are available organs. Thousands of Americans die each year waiting for a transplant.
Everyone connected with the transplant process -- doctors, nurses, donor families, or recipients and their families -- understands this.The United Network For Organ Sharing supervises U.S. transplants. It has set criteria for evaluating patients' needs, primarily based on a recipients' closeness to death, overall health and ability to thrive afterwards. It decides who gets a transplant and who doesn't.
In the Grey's Anatomy world, in last May's episode, "17 Seconds," Dr. Stevens makes her fiance sicker by cutting his LVAD wire in order to move him up the list when a heart becomes available. Several fellow interns, instead of stopping her, aid in her efforts.
Denny dies in the season finale after the transplant and the other interns don't report what happened. Later, they refuse to finger the culprit in some kind of celebration of friendship.
If upcoming episode previews are to be believed, the hospital lets Dr. Stevens back on staff. Is this right?
Arthur Caplan, a Professor of Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, says what would then happen in the real world is this:
- Dr. Stevens would probably face murder or manslaughter charges, since she began a process that resulted in the patient's death. She would face criminal charges for falsifying medical records. She would be dismissed from the intern program and almost certainly never get a medical license.
- The hospital, aware it could lose its accreditation to do transplants and have to pay a huge damage settlement (not just to this patient's family, but to the family of the one who didn't get the heart due to the fraud), would report what happened to the state medical board, UNOS and the police.
- The other interns could also face criminal charges. Their medical futures would be in doubt since they could be considered accessories to the crime.
In the show, nobody talks to the police or the Washington State medical authorities. Nothing happens to the other interns. Now, TV is, of course, entertainment. It is invested in hooking viewers on Izzie Stevens' character. But it is also a business, hence their reluctance to write a popular character off the show.
You got the feeling when the tough resident doctor, Dr. Bailey (Chandra Wilson) who supervises the interns began lobbying her boss to take Dr. Stevens (Katherine Heigl) back that she will somehow return to the staff and all her friends.
It's a shame.
Television doesn't have to replicate real life. But when a drama, not an obvious farce like the NBC comedy Scrubs, suggests crime can be without consequences, it is as dangerous to the public good as when it glorifies sex and violence.