I’m Not a Doctor, But I Play One on TV

Every season, it seems there are more and more doctor shows on television: House, Scrubs, Grey’s Anatomy. Each show deals with a variety of medical problems, many of which we’ve never heard of (although we’re guessing it’s because a plain ol’ heart attack isn’t nearly as interesting as, say, African sleeping sickness). But, we wondered, how many of these cases are medically accurate? And what is the likelihood that they would ever actually occur? Here are a few of our favorite outlandish episodes, with local experts weighing in on their accuracy.


“My Musical”
Season 6, Episode 6

At the beginning of the episode, a woman has a brain aneurysm. When she wakes up, instead of hearing people talking normally, she hears them singing. The doctors diagnose her as having “musical hallucinations” due to the aneurysm.

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“This is a case of artistic license,” says Dr. Andrew Decker, a board-certified neurologist with offices in Rye and White Plains, who notes that there has been no case reported of anyone hearing normal speech as singing. Still, “in clinical experience, a person can hear music when none is playing. Usually the music that is hallucinated was well known from childhood. I once had an elderly female patient who hallucinated the Irish folk songs that her mother sang to her when she was a child.”

“A neurologist might only see one or two cases in an entire career.”


“Cane and Able”
Season 3, Episode 2

A young boy with rectal bleeding claims to have been abducted by aliens. The doctors run various tests but come up with conflicting results. Dr. House diagnoses the boy, who was conceived via in-vitro fertilization, with chimerism, wherein he has the DNA of both himself and his dead twin brother.

“It is not an impossible scenario, but it would be very rare,” says Caroline Lieber, director of the Joan H. Marks Graduate Program in Human Genetics at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville. “If this was an IVF conception with two embryos being implanted, and one died, there could be some incorporation of the dead twin’s cells into the living twin.” It could happen, she notes, in a normal twin pregnancy as well.

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“Very rare,” Lieber says.

Private Practice

“In Which Addison Finds the Magic” Season 1, Episode 3

A mother brings her young daughter—whose entire body is powder-blue—into the doctor’s office. At first, the doctor says the color is a result of a reaction to dental anesthesia. Later, the mother brings in the child’s three sisters, who also have turned blue. It turns out the children have inhaled the fumes
from a toxic chemical in the “castle” they play in.

“They developed methemoglobinemia from nitrate toxicity due to a fertilizer,” says Dr. Arthur Forni, associate medical director of Westchester Medical Group in White Plains. “It is a condition in which the hemoglobin in the blood cannot effectively bind oxygen, which causes the skin’s color to change, among other things. This, in fact, is more or less plausible if they ingested—not only inhaled—the toxin. Also, the blue skin is more a dusky purplish or blue-gray look, not the powder-blue seen in the show.”

“I have never actually seen this,” Dr. Forni says.

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Grey’s Anatomy

Photo courtesy of ABC MEDIANET

“It’s the End of the World” Season 2, Episode 16

A man makes a homemade bazooka and it accidentally goes off, leaving some unexploded munitions inside his body. A paramedic has stuck her hand inside him to both stop the bleeding and, hopefully, prevent the munitions from going off. The doctors and the bomb squad must attempt to get the munitions out without the man bleeding to death or the bomb going off.

“I don’t really see how this could happen,” says Dr. Caleb Charny, a general surgeon with an office in White Plains. “Theoretically, any shrapnel or metal fragments can tear into your body and cause internal bleeding and, even without exploding, that could cause injury and possibly cause a person to bleed to death. The more realistic scenario would probably be the injury from the metal itself, as opposed to the bomb going off.”

“Highly unlikely,” Dr. Charny says.


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