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When I Saw My Disease Portrayed on a TV Medical Drama

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It’s pretty uncommon to find mention of Crohn’s disease or any form of IBD mentioned on TV. That’s gradually changing as knowledge and awareness of “invisible illnesses” increase, but plots involving Crohn’s on peak-time TV shows in particular, are still few and far between.

I’m personally always pretty hesitant to watch a drama featuring my disease. The very idea that my condition is being using in a “dramatic” setting puts me off. It makes me feel my pain is being used solely for dramatic gain, and that is my device to use when I want the last caramel in the chocolate box — do not take that silver lining away from me, BBC! But I guess the same could be said for anyone who has had any form of painful experience in their lives; watching someone play act their worst moments out for ratings gain will always sting a little. But “Holby City (a popular medical drama here in the UK) covered my disease as part of their most recent episode, “The Kill List,” on November 21, 2016.

So I tuned in perhaps not expecting much more than a few crude jokes about bowel movements and generally feeling the patient would be “cured” upon leaving the ward. With hope that high, how could I be disappointed?!

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What transpired was a surprisingly accurate, albeit very abridged, version of a Crohn’s disease diagnosis. Most patients’ diagnosis is a long and trying process, followed by countless tests, pain and hospital stays, but as the writers only had an hour to work with, we got a decent version of this, just at break-neck speed.

The patient in question was a doctor himself but had been avoiding facing up to his intestinal troubles. By the time he had fainted into the arms of his on-off-on-off-again lover (another doctor — these fake doctors don’t half get about!), he had been feeling symptoms for quite some time. The experiences of this Crohn’s patient mirrored my own in many ways, which was quite upsetting to watch. He was sent for a colonoscopy to confirm the consultant’s suspicions of Crohn’s; he then had emergency surgery due to “colon compilations,” and ended up having some of his bowel and intestine removed. When we awoke his first words were, “No stoma bag?” — this was the very thing I’d been so terrified of post-surgery.

We saw the surgery; this was the part that affected me most of all. Not because I’m squeamish, because those days are long behind me, but because it was all treated so matter-of-factly. It brought me right back to my own surgery where I was so prepared for the idea that these faces may be the last I see — I’d accepted I may have a stoma, the surgery may fail, or that I may not come round at all. It was terrifying. Watching these surgeons hold the patients internal organs in their hands, (yes, OK, I know it was prosthetics; I’m pretty sure our TV budgets don’t stretch to having actual cadavers), humbled me to know that saving lives is just a job for so many — something we all too often take for granted.

Overall the depiction of my disease in this episode was informative, if not a little frightening for those undiagnosed (or my mom). We saw the patient in excruciating pain, faint, sweating and thin. We heard him discuss his potential treatments — steroids where he worried his hair would fall out and he’d put on weight, immunological therapy — where he was dismayed at how prone to infection he’d be. All accurate and true steps doctors follow in treating our illness. But what really tugged at my heartstrings was when the patient said he’d be “ugly and useless,” something we’ve undoubtedly all thought if not said since we got sick. It’s untrue of course, but it’s an accurate depiction of how despite an illness being unseen to the human eye, it can still make us feel decidedly unpleasant.

I’m always grateful when programs and articles accurately portray my condition. I feel this episode certainly went some way to doing this. It didn’t sugarcoat the seriousness of it, it didn’t wrap things up neatly in an end-of-episode bow (we left our hero being advised he should acknowledge and take his condition more seriously), and it didn’t over-explain it, either. That left me with hope that this latest little nugget of awareness will leave viewers intrigued, and hopefully intrigued enough to learn a little more, or ask a little more of that friend, colleague, stranger at the bus stop they know has it. Or simply to understand a bit more of what we go through, because understanding for us goes a very long way. Every little bit helps and this episode certainly helped remind me my story is my own, but it’s sadly shared with so many.

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Originally published: November 23, 2016
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