Discovery Health brings the real-life adventures of USC Hospital to TV
Don’t look for Richard Chamberlain swashbuckling his way through surgery, but this Discovery Health documentary brings the real-life adventures of USC doctors and patients to the small screen. You’d never peg Mike Mathis for a Trojan die-hard. A graduate of Occidental College, the veteran TV producer’s closest connection to the university is attending the same San Marino church as USC President Steven B. Sample.
And yet, Mathis is the mastermind behind the six-part miniseries “USC Medical” that aired on the Discovery Health channel in April and May, reaching some 40 million American homes.
Had the university purchased six hours of advertising, it couldn’t have presented the Keck School in a more flattering light than this documentary highlighting the real-life stories of the doctors, patients and medical students of USC and its affiliated hospitals.
Just how did Mathis, with no direct ties to the Trojan Family, hit on the Keck School for this project? Wanting to model a series after ABC’s “Hopkins 24/7” and “Houston Medical,” Mathis says he “immediately thought of USC because it’s here in the community where I live. It’s a huge medical center; it’s very renowned and respected. And I knew there were interesting stories at that hospital. I just knew it.
“People go through life and death situations here – hurting people, frightened people, delighted people – all going through these crucial moments. We just wanted to be there with people who were willing to let us tell their stories.”
Mathis’ instinct was right. The first episode featured a live-donor liver transplant performed on mother and daughter by USC surgeons Rick Selby and Nicolas Jabbour. It also had a segment on surgeon Melvin Silverstein’s compassionate handling of a frightened breast-cancer patient convinced she was going to die. In a later episode, Silverstein himself becomes the patient when he undergoes open-heart surgery to repair a valve. Hours later, he faces a near-death crisis with a ripped aorta – corrected in a life-saving procedure performed by friend and colleague Vaughn Starnes, a cardiothoracic surgeon. In a separate episode, Starnes operates on an hours-old infant born with a heart that only works on one side.
In all, some 30 stories lace through the six one-hour episodes. We see twins diagnosed with retinoblastoma, a rare cancer of the eye; a burn patient’s excruciating skin reconstruction recovery; a heart-transplant candidate’s anxious wait for a donor organ. Student stories show the hardships faced by Amy, a USC undergraduate living with cystic fibrosis; the strain on Keck first-year students Ebonie Smith and Nohemi Gonzalez as they brace for exams; and the tender relationship that develops between surgical fellows Laura Klein and Lina Romero and their mentor, again breast surgeon Mel Silverstein, who is himself haunted by the drug-overdose death of his daughter years ago.
“There are some very moving stories in the six hours and some heroic doctors and heroic patients,” says Silverstein. “I think looking at the six hours will give a lot of people hope.” It took nearly a year to make these six hours of television. Film crews began taping in July 2003. “We filmed almost every day for seven months,” says Mathis, whose Pasadena-based production company has made numerous programs for the Discovery networks as well as for the Travel Channel, TLC and HGTV. Beforestarting his own production company, Mathis directed episodes of “Unsolved Mysteries” for years.
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