- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 29, 2000

NEW YORK Amid the tension of the emergency room, Dr. Edward Cornwell lectures a belligerent gang member who's been shot in the back even as he tries to save the young man's life.

Later, he takes a group of boys from a tough Baltimore neighborhood to meet another shooting victim stuck in a hospital bed, showing how the culture of guns and violence isn't glamorous like in the movies.

Dr. Cornwell moves with the self-assurance of an actor, even if he lacks George Clooney's brilliant smile or Anthony Edwards' dramatic timing.

He's not acting, though. There's nothing fake about the blood-soaked sheets. Or the bullet wounds. Or Dr. Cornwell himself, the chief of trauma surgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. In the summer of reality television, he's as real as it gets, and one of the stars of a remarkable six-part documentary series on ABC that debuts tomorrow at 10 p.m.

"Hopkins 24/7" depicts the inner workings of the Baltimore hospital in a narrative style with all the drama of "ER."

The camera follows a 14-year-old girl as she learns she has uterine cancer; a deaf child who wakes up from surgery and hears for the first time; a first-year intern struggling through a 100-hour workweek; and doctors meeting to discuss why patients died during surgery.

Phyllis McGrady, senior vice president of ABC News, first conceived the idea in 1993 and finally conquered the logistical mountains to get it done.

A family health emergency had forced her to spend a lot of time in a hospital.

"I realized there was an entirely different world than any world that I had ever heard of," she says. It consumed the people who worked or were treated there, almost to the point they were cut off from the outside world.

To be able to tell the story, ABC needed a hospital willing to give the network unfettered and probably unprecedented access.

ABC approached administrators at Hopkins and, after months of internal discussion, the hospital decided to take the leap of faith.

"We were very separate entities," Mr. McGrady says. "We were not partners in this project. I said to them, 'We need to see what happens in the hospital, warts and all.' "

Ronald Peterson, president of Johns Hopkins Hospital and Health Systems, says he considered it a valuable way to illustrate some of the issues his institution faces: health care in an urban setting, the rigors of training doctors and treating people while being squeezed by insurance companies.

"We're cognizant that there are some potential risks along the way," he says. "But we really think that we're doing a service, not only to our institution, but to the academic medical industry at large and to the people being served by the institution."

Mr. Peterson seems visibly relieved as if he had waited weeks to exhale after viewing portions of the premiere episode for the first time.

The hospital's most difficult decision was allowing ABC to film its weekly "morbidity and mortality" conference. That's where doctors meet to discuss what went wrong during surgeries where patients had died, to see if there was something that could have been done differently.

It's a stunning look at surgeons the way they're rarely seen on television, nervously trying to defend their work against pointed comments by colleagues. Mr. Peterson says the hospital was confident that nothing discussed would leave Hopkins vulnerable to liability lawsuits.

ABC obtained written permission from each of the patients filmed, and hospital personnel who didn't want to take part could opt out. Still, producers says they were impressed that relatively few people refused.

Hopkins had intended not to let filming take place on its psychiatric ward, but the doctor in charge there didn't want to be left out for fear it would further stigmatize the mentally ill. ABC filmed conversations between therapists and patients with eating disorders, choosing patients with that ailment in the belief that they were better equipped than others to give consent.

It was a huge undertaking for ABC News, which filmed for three months round-the-clock. At some points, the network had eight two-person crews working there at the same time.

"We didn't go in with a preconceived thesis of what it was we were going to show a viewer," says producer Peter Bull. "It was a response to the people we met. It was very different from the way we usually work."

ABC may find "Hopkins 24/7" timed perfectly to catch the wave of interest in reality TV programming, although Mr. McGrady says that would be coincidental. The timing late summer, with part of the series airing opposite NBC's Olympic coverage also means there's a danger of getting overlooked, much like Fox's admirable but low-rated look at a real-life high school, "American High."

"Will it get lost?" Mr. McGrady asks. "It's hard to say. We don't have a tribal council. We don't vote a doctor off every week. This is truly as real as we could tell the story."

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