There’s a reason most medical shows focus on emergency departments or surgeons — or both. That’s where the drama is in a hospital, and the hospital is where the drama is in health care. But it’s not representative of how the health care system works — or how it doesn’t.
Keeping Canada Alive is an ambitious CBC series premiering tonight that attempts to show the breadth and depth of health care across the country. Sixty camera crews filmed in hospitals, rehab centres, community health centres, individuals’ homes and more on one day in May this year, and the footage has been assembled into six episodes plus web-based extras.
Narrated by Kiefer Sutherland — grandson of Tommy Douglas, the father of Medicare — the show doesn’t skimp on emergency medicine. But in the first two episodes it also highlights the heartbreaking moments of a couple at home dealing with Alzheimer’s, the grit of a young man with a broken neck in rehab, a family doctor run off her feet and worrying she might miss a diagnosis in a vulnerable patient.
There are life-saving moments such as the risky surgery of a baby having a hole in his heart repaired, life-affirming moments such as the gratitude and acceptance of a beautiful girl whose scars can be reduced but not eliminated.
There are cool moments like Rosie the Robot — technology allowing a remote community to have access to a physician hundreds of kilometres away.
There are also heartbreaking moments, such as the woman caring for her husband with Alzheimer’s who scoffs at the word “caregiver” applied to her, saying she’s a wife simply doing what a spouse does.
The series does come with a pair of rose-coloured glasses. Not only are the outcomes largely positive, but the couple dealing with Alzheimer’s seem happy with the supports available in the community, and a story about a hospice for terminally ill children showcases instead their temporary care for children with severe disabilities whose parents need respite.
These stories are valid, and poignant in their own ways, but don’t represent those who struggle to find the support they need in the face of overwhelming health issues. The shadow of a health care system struggling to meet complex needs is there, however. Is a doctor peering at a severely ill patient through a screen from hundreds of kilometres away a true substitute for a flesh and blood physician, for example?
The series is not interested in answering those kinds of questions, but instead in telling a patchwork of intimate human stories to convey an overall impression of a vast, incredible and at times frustrating health care system. It’s enough: this is compelling, thoughtful television.
Those looking for a searing look at what’s wrong with the system should look to the news. Keeping Canada Alive presents us with a day in the life of health care, and so far it’s a relatively sunny day.