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20 Times a Chronic Illness Was Featured on a TV Show

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You’re sitting on your couch, relaxing with a little TV, and then you hear it: a character just mentioned your illness! You might feel some initial excitement (especially if you have a disease that doesn’t typically get a lot of media recognition), but then as you settle in and watch the show, the question becomes: how will your illness be portrayed? If done well, the portrayal could be empowering and educational… or, if the disease isn’t properly represented and instead used for dramatic effect, it could be inaccurate and even offensive.

We asked our Mighty community to share the TV shows that have featured their illness and how well the show portrayed what the illness is really like. While some shows clearly did their research, others relied on stereotypes or misinformation. We’re sending our thanks to the ones who got it right, and calling on the ones who got it wrong to respect to the community of real people who actually live with these conditions every day.

Here’s what our community told us:

1. “On ‘House,’ a patient came into the clinic complaining of fatigue and tiredness, and said it might be fibromyalgia. House, annoyed, prescribes him eight hours of sleep and dismisses him. That’s the only time I think I’ve seen a portrayal of fibro in the wild.”

2.I was a bit disappointed in how ‘American Pickers’ handled things when Frank was off the show for awhile dealing with a Crohn’s disease flare. They basically glazed right over his absence and made a lot of fuss over how great and skinny he looked when he got back. In fairness, Frank himself might not have wanted things said about it, but it just seemed like a missed opportunity to educate people about the disease.”

3.Lyme disease on ‘House.’ It was eventually diagnosed with a ‘classic bullseye rash.’ Crap. Not all ‘bullseye’ rashes actually look like a bullseye. Many people infected with Lyme don’t get a rash at all (I never had one any of the times I was infected). Also the symptoms portrayed were more consistent with Lyme that had gone untreated for a long period of time. That would mean if the patient did get a rash it would’ve been gone by the time the symptoms emerged.”

4.Lymphedema — it’s usually featured on TLC. Usually in a panic-inducing way. Come see ‘the woman whose leg won’t stop growing’ or ‘the man with 600-pound legs.’ They use the most extreme cases. I wish they’d feature people who are thriving with lymphedema and how important it is to get treatment early.”

5. “There was a quick and subtle reference to Crohn’s disease on an episode of ‘Glee’ — a cheerleader was throwing up into a trash can and someone told her there wasn’t even time for Crohn’s disease at that moment. I thought it was kind of cool that they mentioned it because I rarely see it portrayed in the media. Sure, nausea is a really minor side effect compared to everything else we deal with, but I’ll take it!”

6.Cystic fibrosis on ‘Bates Motel.’ If you’re on the transplant list you aren’t hiking around the mountains carrying your oxygen tank! And recovery isn’t that quick. It’s also not advised to get pregnant after transplant. Also the very first episode of ‘Chicago Med’ there was a boy who had a transplant. They showed him at the end of the show with the doctor next to him, right after the surgery, with only a nasal cannula in. So unrealistic.”

7.Multiple sclerosis was ‘Scrubs.’ They kind of got it right and wrong. We often look perfectly fine, as did the actress portraying the MS patient. But then she copied symptoms of other diseases to show her MS. It’s hard to prove you have MS without an MRI… So ‘Scrubs’ resorted to the actress twitching her hand repeatedly, something I have personally never seen or dealt with, never seen within my ‘MS friends,’ going to MS events, MS Society, etc. in my last 13 years of being diagnosed.”

8. “Fibromyalgia is featured on the TV show ‘Haters Back Off!’ The mom says she has it, acting like every little thing hurts her but it is obvious she’s a hypochondriac (it says so in the character description). It’s horrible to use fibromyalgia for this because we are constantly considered hypochondriacs when we are seriously in pain.”

9.Meniere’s disease on ‘Switched at Birth.’ Way underplayed. They portrayed the hearing loss but treated the vertigo as a minor annoyance instead of the life destroyer it [can be]. (Love the show though).”

10.Chiari malformation was on ‘Rizzoli and Isles.’ Mara Isles was diagnosed with Chiari malformation, and how they portrayed the illness was wrong. She had decompression surgery and was back at work the next day?! No. Try four to seven days in hospital and weeks with pain, and nausea from meds.”

11. “‘Lost’ [featured] endometriosis. They only talked about it as a woman’s fertility issue and said it showed up on an ultrasound, which is an absolute impossibility. It can only be found by opening you up, where you can visibly see it, where a biopsy of every piece has to be performed regardless, and where healthy-appearing tissue has to be looked at under a microscope to reveal early cells setting in. I see it more and more nowadays and the perpetuation of myths, misinformation, blatant lies, and as a female fertility issue is enraging.”

12. “The only time I have ever seen postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS) on TV was an episode of ‘Mystery Diagnosis.’ About seven years later, I remembered that episode and started doing research when I started presenting similar symptoms. That episode honestly saved my life.”

13.Neurofibromatosis was briefly mentioned in an episode of ‘House.’ It was also in ‘Scream Queens,’ and they made fun of the character with neurofibromatosis saying it looked like he was ‘covered in boils,’ ‘like a toad,’ etc.”

14. “Years ago I watched an episode of ‘Mystery Diagnosis’ with a friend because I loved hard-to-solve medical problems. Fast forward to now I get diagnosed with pyoderma gangrenosum and decide to look up some stuff. I find a link of a short documentary on YouTube and watch it. The whole time I’m thinking ‘How have I seen this before?’ A few days later it hits me that it was from years ago when my friend and I would sit downstairs and watch medical shows. This is this episode we both kept saying, ‘Ugh, that poor woman. This is so terrible!’ Now I have it! And unfortunately, it was portrayed correctly.”

15. “‘Superstore’ talked about Crohn’s disease. She was faking being sick and they asked a nurse what she thought could be wrong with her… and that was her response. I understand that one day I might look OK, then the next day I can’t come into work because I’m sick even though I don’t look like it, but this character played hooky and this was how they could explain her actions. It was such a slap in the face.”

16. “I have Stevens Johnson syndrome, a very rare side effect of many prescription medications. It has been on ‘House’ and on ‘Blacklist’ as part of a drug-trial-gone-wrong episode. It’s very dramatic-looking, as your skin and mucus membranes blister and slough off, so it ends up looking like a horror movie which sadly is pretty accurate.”

17. “Once an episode of ‘Criminal Minds’ was focusing on a real psychological disorder, delusional parasitosis. While referring to it, one of the lead characters lumped it in with ‘other controversial or delusional diseases’ like chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia and recurrent Lyme disease. … In fact, every time I ever hear CFS referred to in the news it is tagged with the label ‘controversial diagnosis.’”

18.Cyclic vomiting syndrome on ‘Grey’s Anatomy.’ They did an OK job portraying what going through an episode would be like. The only thing is that when we start vomiting, there is limited talking and more vomit…”

19. “Very disappointed in how ‘Coronation Street’ played kidney failure… apparently Tracey Barlow’s transplanted kidney failed last year, and within a day after one dialysis she was back on her feet… definitely wouldn’t be fine after just one dialysis.”

20. “I have Cushing’s disease and personally I think it was portrayed OK. It highlighted the issue is Cushies have with being diagnosed and being taken seriously and did so in a sensitive manner, however it didn’t show us in the best light and the character was a little bit weak and could have been shown slightly differently. The program was ‘Doc Martin.’”

Have you ever seen your illness featured on a TV show? Share how the show got it right or wrong in the comments below.

Originally published: April 25, 2017
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