Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Apathetic Spectator Syndrome (ASS) - Do you have it?

I was a wrestling fan in my formative years and like most kids, I tried out those outlandish moves with my brothers & buddies. This was in spite of the repetitive "Don't try this at home" messages, which have recently been changed to, "Don't try this at home, school or anywhere else". Like those additions would make a LOT of difference convincing kids that didn't care in the first place! Now, you can either blame the kids for being stupid enough to imitate wrestlers, the parents for not monitoring them well enough or try to bring down the root cause - wrestling! And try they did. There were awareness campaigns, discussions by NGOs and people who had time to burn. For a while there, these nervous Nellies won - wrestling deserted the airwaves for some time. Us kids though, we carried on with our play, until one day, someone got hurt bad. No child was wheeled into the ICU, no police complaints were filed, but damn that hurt! One episode of pain & hurt is a better teacher than a thousand hours of lectures & awareness campaigns. 

TV is a powerful medium. We watch, assimilate, emulate and subconsciously draw knowledge from what we see. That is exactly the reason behind the aggressive anti-smoking campaign going on in India right now. You can't watch a movie or TV show without the statutory warning gliding across the screen. A lot of people argue that it takes away from the experience, that the immersive illusion is shattered when someone tries to blur out a cigarette or an "annoying" message flashes on screen. Directors and actors have criticized the policy saying that smokers will smoke, irrespective of whether the stars they adore do so. But, they underestimate the power of the very medium which they exploit. If even one person is disgusted enough by the cancer ridden lung images to quit, the campaign is a successful one & the ministry is justified. We take home a million messages from TV & movies - what is the difference between right & wrong, I need to work out to look as good, those clothes are in right now, I want to accomplished larger goals - So, what's the harm if one walks away knowing that smoking kills, even if the message is buried deep deep within his subconscious?

We watch, remember, & therefore we do. It's a simple concept that eludes Indian movie & TV writers when they portray doctors and medicine. I spoke of the immersive illusion of television earlier. I was watching a show where a neurosurgeon was attempting removal of a Meningioma with one of his arms in a cast & shoulder sling. Single handed Meningioma surgery aside, that idiot had the shoulder sling ON TOP of his sterile surgical gown! And then the illusion goes POOF! Indian TV shows have horrific production values most of the time & I don't see a lot of viewers complaining, or even realizing this dreadful oversight. So, it's understandable that they don't show ventilators, heart lung bypass machines, & have Casualty departments with just needles for equipment. But, it's how they portray the practice of medicine & doctors that irks me most. 

A world renowned neurosurgeon (Indian shows are fascinated by brain surgeons, I think) is called in to operate on a girl with a gunshot to the head. He flies in with much enthusiasm, but when the girl starts sinking, all he does is order the nurse to up fluids & starts massaging her palms and soles in an effort to revive her. Yes, that's what 12 years of neurosurgical training teaches us - something that grandmothers do when kids faint in the sun. Then there's the ubiquitous and classic, "The condition of the pregnant woman is very serious. We can either save the mother of the child. The family must decide soon". This is followed by a never ending ethical & philosophical discussion within the family about whom to save. I doubt there is a single obstetric condition which turns into an "either-mother-or-child" survival situation so dramatically. And even if there is, no doctor can ever ask that question! We are compelled by our ethical code & the law to save the mother irrespective of the risk to the fetus, having liberty to sacrifice the latter if required. Myth debunked! 

A man is shot while walking on the street and collapses in a pool of blood. As if out of thin air, a crowd surrounds him, but nobody moves closer than a few feet to help the man. As luck would have it, a medical intern was close by and she pleads with the crowd to help her take the victim to a hospital. The response was another archetypal Indian TV dialogue, "He's been shot, it'll be a police case. We can't move him until the police gets here." The intern then proceeded to reprimand the crowd, calling them - for lack of a better term - Pussies. And so the gunshot victim got taken to a hospital. This, I thought, is a great show. For those not residing in India, the scene I've described is a common occurrence in real life. The reason behind someone collapsing isn't always as dramatic as a gunshot, but the common man is hesitant to get involved in somebody else's crap. And their apprehension is partly understandable. Government hospitals lack manpower, so the onus of admitting and transporting the patient within the hospital often falls upon the person who brought them. The police is only just becoming more sensitive to these cases, & instances of good samaritans who have been made to needlessly wait and sign declarations by the police are common too. There is an acute need to let the common man know that their good deed will not be punished. There are of course, lives at stake here. But, while thoughts of Indian television having matured were only just forming in my head, the very next scene had a police officer admonishing the hospital dean saying, "It was obviously a police case. The intern must be punished. She should have waited for us to get there before moving him". Sigh. 

I think back to us kids imitating what we saw on TV & how we all got away with a few scratches, bruises & cuts. All seems well with our approach of mimicking what we saw on the telly & figuring out our limits. But, what of the boy who faces a life in prison after accidentally killing a girl while imitating a wrestling move? Or the boy who died imitating his favorite wrestler by diving off the roof?

There may not be any statistics to report  the number of people who died because bystanders didn't offer any help - let's term their affliction 'Apathetic Spectator Syndrome' or ASS, from watching too much TV. There are numerous stories which make me wish that TV would stop with these deceitful portrayals of what happens within hospitals or events leading up to an emergency admission. I shudder to think of the number of people who would apply what they see in these shows, in a very real time of emergency. It's about time TV woke up and realized its responsibility to create awareness extends beyond a puff of cancerous smoke. 

I'll leave you with one last story. A young doctor was riding his bike to college one morning, when for reasons unknown, he lost control and fell off at a busy intersection. Nobody came forward to help this man. The police brought him to the hospital where he worked and studied, estimating he lay on the asphalt for a good 20 minutes before they found him. An hour of relentless resuscitation attempts couldn't undo the damage of twenty minutes lying on the road alone. I wish more than ever, someone would have come forward to help that morning. 

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