'ICU' compelling but excruciating show

Monday, August 5, 2002

NEW YORK -- A home movie shows the boy in a Little League uniform, scampering around first base with the abandon of an ice skater about to lose his footing and spin out of control.

The scene switches to a hospital bed, where the boy's face is gray and puffy. Moments later, his mother -- her eyes filled with tears -- describes the moment his heart stopped. She hugged him, whispered she loved him. And he was gone.

It's excruciating. Few parents who see it, during a four-part ABC News series on a pediatric cardiac care unit, will be able to avoid imagining themselves in that woman's place.

Would they even want to watch it in the first place?

That's ABC's biggest challenge with "ICU," which begins Wednesday at 9 p.m. A network crew spent 15 months following the staff and patients at the elite intensive care unit of Arkansas Children's Hospital, weaving a compelling narrative about the intersections of life and death.

Yet the show is so emotionally taxing to watch that the temptation to simply change the channel may be irresistible.

"Did we think about that?" asked David Doss, the series' executive producer. "Absolutely. Especially me, with a 2-year-old and a 1-year-old."

Patients stick with you

Invited to Little Rock by the hospital, Doss had envisioned a run-of-the-mill newsmagazine segment about advances in heart surgery for children.

But he was drawn in by the stories of the hospital's staff: the cardiologist temporarily raising his 5-year-old son alone, the twice-divorced nurse manager who talks about not getting emotionally involved in the cases, yet fails, the doctor and her husband who can't have children of their own.

The unit's chief, Dr. Jonathan Drummond-Webb, is a hard-charging triathlete who has trouble facing his own health problem.

ABC focuses on these staff members both on the series and in its promotion. As on "ER" or other fictional dramas, they're the recurring characters, while the patients come and go.

But it's the patients and their families who will stick with you. Unlike most TV dramas, their pain and fear is all too real.

"It isn't Hollywood," Doss said. "This is the way life is. Bad things do happen to wonderful people. But by far, most of the time, especially in this series, wonderful things happen to good people. It is that mix that makes us feel like we're in a good place."

The story of the boy who dies, one of two featured in the series who does not survive, is juxtaposed with the drama of an infant saved by a transplant.

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