Geer Village author series
NORTH CANAAN — An intriguing guest speaker, part of Geer Village’s author series, offered sage advice sprinkled with an intriguing behind-the-scenes look at a hit television show when she spoke Nov. 3.Lisa Sanders is a former CBS News producer, now a medical doctor, Yale professor, New York Times Magazine columnist and author. It is not by chance that she is also a technical consultant on the long-running Fox show, “House.”The show was inspired by her “Diagnosis” column, in which she presents a single, difficult case each week and offers readers the opportunity to make a diagnosis.But the backstory on the show, now in its eighth season and already in syndication, is in her television career. Sanders was a producer for CBS health correspondent Dr. Bob Arnott. While filming a white-water rafting segment, she watched Arnott rescue an elderly woman from the water and revive her with CPR.“It was amazing, and all I could think was, I’m never going to save anybody’s life being a TV producer,” Sanders told a sizeable crowd in the Hollenbeck Room at Geer. “I never really thought about saving lives before that.”Several years later, Sanders enrolled in medical school, thinking it would be easy after all she had learned working on medical segments.“Of course, I really didn’t know anything. But it was in the third year, when they actually let you in the same room with patients, and you get to be part of the Residents’ Report meetings. That changed my life.”For “House” fans, those meeting are the “differential,” where doctors put their heads together to come up with a diagnosis. Sanders was surprised to see how much time doctors spend on it, and how subjective it can be. She was also smitten with the process.So was the television-watching public. “My very first column, 1,600 people responded.”When the idea for being a consultant on the show was first pitched to her by Executive Producer Paul Attanasio, she was not told it was based on her column.“They told me it was about a doctor who was irritable, arrogant, addicted to drugs, hates patients and loves diagnosis.“I thought, ‘Oh my God, who would watch such a show?’”But it was that last quality of the character that got to her. And so the “one-liner diagnosis” of the typical medical mystery show was not resuscitated. “When I watched the pilot and saw [actor] Hugh Laurie embody the doctor — against my better judgment, I totally fell in love with the show.”And as it turns out, so did the 51 million people who now watch the show.People often ask how accurate it is. Sanders takes issue with the doctors who do everything from drawing blood to performing lab work and surgery. But she understands it is all a part of the “House” paranoia, and keeps the show focused, and said the diagnosis part is very realistic.Her message to her Geer Village audience was that they should tell their story — and make sure their doctor is listening. In the show, the diagnosis never comes from lab tests or an MRI. House listens and is a great observer.“Although I have never once broken into a patient’s house,” she said, referring to a recurring plot device.It’s the message in her book, “Every Patient Tells a Story,” subtitled “Medical Mysteries and the Art of Diagnosis.”Sanders is one of three technical consultants on “House.” They are given a synopsis of the plot and asked to come up with a disease.“They made it clear they want things that have actually happened. There are six beats; six terrible things have to happen to the character before they get a diagnosis.”It’s all done via email, and Sanders admitted it is somewhat competitive between the consulting docs. They never hit “reply all.”Yes, the show is based on the fictional detective Sherlock Holmes (a favorite of Sanders’). It is Executive Producer David Shore’s interpretation. James Wilson is Watson, the friend who gets his feelings hurt all the time but always forgives.Coincidence or not, the same year the show began, in 2004, a requirement began for medical students to successfully train to talk to patients.Of course, audience members wanted to know what it’s like to work with Laurie, the British actor who plays Dr. House. Sanders said she mostly works with the show’s writers, but occasionally goes to Hollywood to hang out on the set.“He is so nice to everyone. He always uses his American accent when on the set. But I heard his British accent at the 100th episode party. I think he may have had a little bit to drink.”The Geer crowd is pretty sharp, and many have noticed a glitch on the show.“Next time you see [Laurie], tell him he’s got his cane in the wrong hand,” one person suggested.Sanders said people notice that all the time, but the show started out that way, and they can’t change it now.