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‘Nightingales’ a Hospital Case : Angry Nurses Charge That Series Demeans Their Profession

Charlie’s Nurses.

In a recent episode, the sexy student nurses of “Nightingales,” Aaron Spelling’s successful new series on NBC, giddily cruised Hollywood as the sound track boomed lyrics from a rock song:

“I wanna have some fun, I wanna have some fun; move my body all night long, move my body all night long.”

“We went with it to be today , " Spelling explained about the song. Ever branded by his past megahits and sounding deeply wounded, he protested bitterly: “I’m being painted with the same old brush about ‘Charlie’s Angels,’ and I’m getting tired of it!”

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If anyone is losing patience, however, it’s the multitude of nurses who regard “Nightingales” as TV’s bedpan.

“It pushes my hot button,” snapped Ann Sweeney, assistant director of education and training at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Bellflower.

“Never in my experience as a student and teaching 25 years have I seen anything like this,” declared Sharon Hilton, director of the Los Angeles County Medical Center School of Nursing.

“These women are idiots and tramps,” charged Claire Fagin, dean of nursing at the University of Pennsylvania. “This is disgusting. My students are demeaned, they are outraged, they are sickened. This is another world.”

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Yes, it is.

It’s the world of bimbo-nomics, NBC style, ranging most recently from a miniskirted assistant D.A. doubling as an undercover hooker in the movie “Full Exposure: The Sex Tapes Scandal” to the 10 p.m. Wednesday series “Nightingales.”

“It gives a horribly distorted picture of the nurse,” said June Levine, director of nursing, acute care services, at Children Hospital.

“It’s the worst presentation of a profession I have ever seen,” said nurse Chris Hutson, herself a technical adviser on some TV medical series for nearly 30 years.

And it comes at a critical time, said UCLA nursing professor Mary Ann Lewis, president of the Los Angeles region of the California Nurses Assn.--a time when America is already experiencing the “greatest nursing shortage we’re ever had.”

So what else is new? From private eyes to private secretaries, prime time and reality have rarely co-existed. That appears to leave “Nightingales” in the TV mainstream of relatively harmless stupidity.

But, say nurses, the stakes are higher for them. “We need to recruit the best and the brightest,” said Levine.

More than anything else, this worry about image damage to a struggling profession already battling old demeaning female stereotypes is why so many are incensed about “Nightingales.”

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And why they should be.

The premise: Five highly alluring nursing students at a fictional Los Angeles hospital live in a sorority house-like edifice called Nightingale House, where they do laundry, blow-dry their hair, chatter about personal traumas and study microbiology with all the intensity of someone thumbing through Vogue in a doctor’s waiting room.

The characters: Yolanda (Roxann Biggs) is the Hispanic who says: “I’ve been with a lot of guys, and if they don’t call, they die. Muerte !” Allyson (Kim Ulrich) is petty, self-centered and hot blooded. Bridget (Susan Walters) is in the government’s witness protection program as a result of testifying against a powerful underworld figure. Sam (Chelsea Field) is a former dancer whose past drug and alcohol binges have cost her custody of her daughter, whose grandmother refuses to return her.

Yes, your basic student nurses.

And, finally, there is Becky (Kristy Swanson), a naive Missourian and the only one of NBC’s gilded girls who hasn’t been around the block a few times. That is changing, though, for in the last two weeks Becky’s boyfriend has overdosed on drugs and she has been mugged. Epitomizing the series’ firm grip on fantasy, the traumatized Becky did her nursely duty and compassionately held her suffering attacker’s hand when he was later brought into the hospital seriously ill.

Doubling as on-premise housemother and director of student nurses, meanwhile, is Chris Broderick (Suzanne Pleshette), and the hospital chief of staff is the widowed Garrett Braden (Barry Newman), whose wife and Chris were best friends. They have nurse/doctor conflicts, but it’s a given that they are headed for romance.

Just as it’s a given that the permanent bathroom and locker room sets on “Nightingales” are there for the purpose of displaying the student nurses in varieties of semi-dress.

It was Lewis of the California Nurses Assn. and Ada Lindsey, UCLA dean of nursing, who initiated a national campaign against “Nightingales” after the pilot was aired last June. The campaign has mushroomed since the series premiered Jan. 25.

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“Thursday, the day after the show, is our big day for getting complaints,” said a spokesperson for the American Nurses Assn. in Kansas City, which, along with the California association and its counterparts in other states, has protested the series to NBC and Spelling.

Surely all nurses don’t disapprove of “Nightingales.”

“I liked the nursing student interactions and the interactions with the patients,” Peggy Diller said about the pilot. Diller, vice president of patient care services at Queen of Angels/Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center, felt strongly enough to write Spelling a letter of support.

As for the opposition, the basic complaints are as follows:

--"Nightingales” is inaccurate and old-fashioned. “It’s an awful depiction of what we’re trying to do in nursing today, and the students we have are nothing like the students shown on the show,” said Rhea Williams, nursing professor at Azusa Pacific University. “My husband said, ‘They’ve put you back 30 years.’ ”

“They show students as very submissive and lacking any ability to make a decision,” said Hilton, who gave “Nightingales” producers Deborah Zoe Dawson, Victoria Johns and Don Roos a tour of the county hospital and introduced them to student nurses after the pilot aired, to “show them what nursing is like today.”

It didn’t work. “This is subservience on a continual basis,” she said of the series. “Today’s woman does not want that kind of role. It’s an insult to women, not just nurses.”

--Nursing is trivialized by the series. NBC says the female characters “just happen to be nurses.” But not serious ones, for the student Nightingales seem unable to fit much studying into their eclectic lives, and they all seem a bit dim.

In real life, however, student nurses undergo demanding, time-consuming curricula. “Our students carry 16 to 18 semester credits, plus 85% (of them) work 25 to 30 hours a week at outside jobs,” said Hilton, whose Los Angeles County Medical Center School of Nursing offers the state’s only three-year nursing diploma program, compared with a national trend toward four-year collegiate programs.

“But if you continue to portray the nurse as bubbly headed, all legs and no brains, the nursing shortage will get worse,” said Levine. “Why would you become a nurse if nursing and intelligence are two different paths?”

To have fun in L.A. like the Nightingales?

“My thought was that maybe if we show that nursing and student nursing are not a drudge and a frightening thing, and you can have a life of your own, that will get people into student nursing,” Spelling said. “I guarantee that ‘Nightingales” will help the nursing profession.”

“Anyone motivated by that show probably would not make it through training or even pass the test to get in,” said the semi-retired Hutson, who began her career as a technical adviser with “Ben Casey” and worked for “Nightingales” producers Dawson and Johns when they did “Trapper John, M.D.”

--The students are bimbo-esque. “It’s the cute little bimbo image that we’re trying hard to shake, because we deal with people’s lives and people’s deaths,” said UCLA psychiatric nurse Julie Armstrong.

“Bimbos?” Spelling reacted with shock. “What is this bimbo thing? There is not a single show that we have done so far where a nurse goes to bed with anyone.”

He’s right . . . technically .

At one point in last Wednesday’s episode, Allyson (whom Chris describes as her “best student”) made a luncheon date with a surgeon, who offers to bring the food and wine. “Don’t bother,” she said, “we won’t have time.”

At another point, she and the surgeon (who later set her up to be blamed for his own malpractice) heated up in a hospital utility room. He lifted her onto a countertop, hiked her skirt above her thighs, pressed against her and was unbuttoning her top when the scene ended.

Obviously, he was tutoring her in anatomy.

Spelling, who has another, infinitely superior but barely surviving medical series on the air in ABC’s “HeartBeat,” said he’s received compliments from nurses about “Nightingales.” He quoted from several supportive letters, including one from a retired nursing administrator in Ventura.

And he said he had been told to expect a favorable letter from the New York-based National Student Nurses Assn. “These are students, not 55-year-old nurses,” he said. “They heard that we’ve been getting a lot of flack and they think it’s unfair.”

Not so, said Mary Belmont, the group’s director of programs. “There is no letter,” she said. “Our organization does not have a position. A call (to Spelling’s publicist) was made by me (only) to initiate a dialogue.”

When it comes to protesting nurses, it’s been a monologue. Fagin, of the University of Pennsylvania, said she had written two letters each to Spelling and NBC Entertainment President Brandon Tartikoff, listing her objections to the series, without getting a reply.

“In two years, the scriptwriters will have their mothers or children in the hospital and will get an accurate picture of what nurses are like,” she said. “But then it will be too late.”


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