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7 TV Shows That Got Chronic Illness (Mostly) Right

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If you’re looking for an accurate, informative, compassionate representation of your illness, it’s safe to say you’ll probably have a hard time finding it on TV. Most shows portray illnesses in a sensational, highly dramatized way, picking and choosing certain symptoms or stereotypes to emphasize and ignoring the reality patients face. It can be frustrating to watch as someone who actually lives with the illness because you know viewers are getting an inaccurate look at a conditionthey may not know anything else about — which can make it harder for them to understand and empathize with you.

However, occasionally you come across a TV show that seems to have made an effort to “get it right.” These shows can make viewers with the condition feel validated and actually help start conversations about illnesses that are often misunderstood. So we reviewed seven shows to see how well they portrayed an illness.

1. Chronic Fatigue Syndrome on “The Golden Girls”

Inspired by “Golden Girls” creator Susan Harris, who had chronic fatigue syndrome herself, a two-episode arc called “Sick and Tired” saw Dorothy (Bea Arthur) struggle with a mysterious illness doctors couldn’t figure out. After going to doctors who belittled her symptoms and told her she wasn’t “really” sick, Dorothy finally found a doctor who told her she did have something “real” and that it was called chronic fatigue syndrome.

Of course, Dorothy is depicted as receiving a diagnosis relatively quickly, whereas many people with chronic fatigue syndrome search for months or even years to discover the cause of their symptoms. But the portrayal of Dorothy as being dismissed and mocked for her CFS, and subsequently questioning herself, unfortunately mimics what many patients go through.

“This 1989 episode of ‘The Golden Girls’ is so, so important in 2016,” David Michael Conner wrote on The Huffington Post. “It’s important as a historic record of reality — the reality of a patient who lives with a chronic illness, and the reality of how dismissively she is treated by so many.”

2. “Monsters Inside Me”

Though the title takes a sensationalist view of infectious diseases, “Monsters Inside Me” adopts a documentary approach to a patient’s path from infection to diagnosis. Relying on actor re-enactments and interviews with the patients, families and medical experts, the show recounts each step in a patient’s health journey, depicting how confusing and frustrating that search for a diagnosis can be. Some viewers may (understandably) criticize the show for going after shock value, though it is heartening that the patient’s own perspective is front and center here.

3. “Mystery Diagnosis”

Similar to “Monsters Inside Me,” “Mystery Diagnosis” takes a look at one patient’s journey from the onset of their symptoms to their diagnosis and beyond. The same criticism of the show reaching for drama and shock value could apply here, too. But the documentary style and focus on the patient’s perspective mean that viewers can expect to get a reasonably unbiased and accurate explanation of the illness.

4. Multiple Sclerosis on “The West Wing”

In season one of “The West Wing,” which aired in 2001, President Josiah Bartlett (Martin Sheen) revealed he had been diagnosed with relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis seven years earlier. Over the course of season one and two, Bartlett told members of his staff, and finally the public, about his diagnosis. Some viewers said the show didn’t go far enough in portraying fatigue and how stress can exacerbate symptoms (especially considering Bartlett holds arguably one of the most stressful and demanding jobs on the planet). And 15 years later, some medical information may no longer be correct.

But The National MS Society, who worked with the show’s writers, praised the portrayal as accurate. Bartlett’s decision to gradually “come out” about his diagnosis may be relatable to others with multiple sclerosis, some of whom said the show made it easier to talk about their condition with others.

5. Diabetes on “Brothers & Sisters”

Paige (Kerris Dorsey) is diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in season one of “Brothers & Sisters,” after displaying some of the classic symptoms like increased drinking and urination. She’s eventually taken to the hospital where she’s diagnosed, and she and her family are educated about diabetes management. Her diagnosis isn’t mentioned much on the show after that, which viewers could argue shortchanges how much the condition affects everyday life. But there seemed to be an effort to show an accurate representation of the onset and diagnosis.

6. Tardive Dyskinesia on “The Good Wife”

When Michael J. Fox joined “The Good Wife” in 2010, he worked with the writers to give his character, Louis Canning, a condition that wasn’t explicitly Parkinson’s disease (which he’s lived with since 1991) but caused similar body movements. So Louis was written as having tardive dyskinesia, a side effect of Parkinson’s, and in the courtroom scene above, he explained how the condition causes uncontrollable movements. Most laudable is how the character is played by an actor with the condition himself and how there’s more to Louis than just his condition.

“Whenever a show or any representation of characters with disabilities on television tend to be sentimental, with soft piano music playing in the background, and I wanted to prove that disabled people can be assholes, too,” Fox told The Hollywood Reporter.

7. Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome on “Grey’s Anatomy”

“Grey’s Anatomy” has made its fair share of mistakes when it comes to depicting illnesses accurately. But one episode that earned praise was the 2016 episode “Falling Slowly,” which featured a character with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome. Taking inspiration from Olivia Herzoff, a woman with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, the episode focused on a patient who was experiencing dizziness, joint dislocations, pain, and dehydration. Much like real people withe Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, she is accused of being a drug-seeker when she goes to the ER for an IV and experiences the emotional impact of finally receiving a diagnosis after years of not being believed.

Some unexplained details, such as why exactly the patient needed an IV, may stand out to viewers with EDS. But the Ehlers-Danlos Society praised the show for bringing awareness to the condition, and viewers appreciated how both the physical and emotional impact of the condition was portrayed.

“This episode has brought insurmountable awareness to my condition that I will forever be grateful for,” wrote Mighty contributor Kaitlyn Brennan.

What shows did we miss? Share in the comments below.

Originally published: June 10, 2017
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