Doing God's Work on 'House'

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Last March, the cast and producers of FOX's hit medical drama "House" -- which returns to the schedule on Tuesday, Oct. 31, after a break for postseason baseball -- faced their fans at the annual William S. Paley Television Festival in Hollywood.

At one point, a representative from an association for sufferers of an inflammatory condition called vasculitis stood up and thanked the show for calling attention to the malady. While none of the patients of cranky, brilliant Dr. Gregory House (Hugh Laurie) ever wind up having vasculitis, House and his team of doctors (Omar Epps, Jennifer Morrison, Jesse Spencer) often mention it as a possible diagnosis while trying to solve medical puzzles each week.

"I made some smartass remark," recalls show creator David Shore, "and they continued to be grateful. They sent us a lovely little plaque and a lovely letter saying, 'You are doing God's work,' which was the essence of my smartass remark.

"It's very gratifying to be able to raise awareness. Obviously, it's not why we started this show. I wish we could say it was, but no, we thought it was an interesting character and an entertaining opportunity, but it's very cool that out of that can come the ability to inform people a little bit, make people aware of some unusual diseases that people are suffering from and get very little attention."

Vasculitis was mentioned in the pilot of "House," currently in its third year. While it wasn't as common last season, it returned in the season-three premiere.

Shore says there's a specific reason why a disease like vasculitis (or sarcoidosis, which is mentioned about as often) pops up again and again during the diagnostic debate.

"The diseases that tend to be our red herrings tend to be the ones that are difficult to diagnose and have symptoms that are a little vague. They can manifest themselves in different ways, but can be very debilitating and very serious.

"But obviously, if there's some condition that turns your ears purple, that isn't a good red herring for us, because when your ears turn purple, we know exactly what they've got."

Another condition that recurs in conversation is lupus.

"The Lupus Society is also very grateful to us," Shore says. "They gave us an award last year, again, for raising awareness. We, for that event, put together a little three-minute thing, which is on the season-two DVD, with everybody on our team going, 'It might be lupus,' 'It could be lupus.'

"We haven't counted them all up. I don't know which one's in the lead, but there are certainly conditions that are our go-to red herrings."

Actually giving a patient on the show one of these conditions is a little harder.

"Because we've mentioned them for so long," Shore says, "it's a little tricky for that to be the surprise ending. I'm sure, if there aren't already, there will shortly be drinking games linked to what condition [the doctors] mention."

Even so, Shore realizes that these conditions are no joke.

"A disease that affects one in a million people," he says, "is going to have 300 sufferers in this country. Those 300 people have a real disease with real consequences, and nobody's paying attention. There's no financial motivation for it. There's no real outcry from the public for it.

"That's why they love us. Understandably and correctly, they are thrilled to have anybody say the name of their condition on television, to maybe get watched by 25 million people, who hear the name of that condition, and it sticks with them a little bit.

"I suspect you could say 'vasculitis' in a dinner conversation, and people watching the show would know it. They might not know the specifics, but three years ago, they'd have gone, 'What's that? Never heard of it.'"

Asked if he's ever been tempted to do God's work rather than just letting the plot dictate the diseases mentioned, Shore admits, "No. I mean, I feel like a heel for saying no.

"But here's what does creep into your mind -- the responsibility you do have and the need to be accurate, the need not to give false hope, and the need not to create a dramatic situation which isn't real, just for the sake of creating a dramatic situation."

For better or worse, after two-plus seasons of "House," Shore says they're not running out of unusual medical conditions.

"It's a bad thing for humanity, and a good thing for our show. It's a scary world."

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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