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Slating for Sarah

Perhaps you watched the Oscars last month.  Maybe you rooted for the technically stunning “Gravity,” or the raw, true-to-life “Twelve Years a Slave,” or since we’re science-inclined medical nerds, “Dallas Buyer’s Club,” the film based (loosely) on an HIV-positive patient’s real-life plight to medication access during the early years of the AIDS epidemic.

I freelance as a production assistant and set medic. One film I worked on was up for Best Picture, so I dutifully watched, but the only part I really cared about was the “In Memoriam” segment.  And as fellow students entering the medical profession, you should care why.

An AC (“Assistant Camera”) was killed while filming a shot on live train tracks for the film “Midnight Rider” this February. Twenty-seven-year-old Sarah Jones died, and seven others were injured when the group was unable to escape an oncoming train on a narrow trestle that hit a prop metal bed lain across the tracks, turning the bed into shrapnel.  This is a mass casualty that any EMS unit or professional in an emergency department would dread — eight individuals involved in a high-speed collision, with extensive shrapnel injuries, in a fairly remote location. Frustratingly enough, it could have been prevented.  (The investigation is ongoing, but it seems that the production did not have permission to film on the train tracks and the crew’s safety was thus put second to ‘the shot’.)

While there are set medics available at times,there was not one in this case — and if there were, that person wouldn’t have been able to change the outcome based on the extent of the injury and supplies medics typically possess on a project .

After Sarah’s death, the entertainment community rallied for increased safety measures on set (many citing already existing safety policies) and pressed the Academy to include Sarah Jones in the Oscar’s “In Memoriam” segment — the short piece that highlights the deaths of people who have passed away in the last year. Over 21,000 people signed a petition in one day to have her added. A pledge drive was created to create safety on set at all times and crews from around the world submitted “Slates for Sarah” to show support. High-profile junkets like NPR and the Los Angeles Times published stories highlighting the concerns of safety on sets.

But why should we care?  If you’re not connected to the entertainment industry, perhaps you find this story sad, but only anecdotal.  Maybe you don’t care about movies or television. Or maybe you only see this as an example of big shots trying to avoid playing by the rules. But as someone who is going to be a doctor, here’s where you should have a problem.

Sarah kind of made the “In Memoriam” segment. By kind of, I mean after the general montage, as Bette Midler sang “Wind Beneath My Wings,” there was a banner at the bottom of screens with Sarah’s name that read “Complete in Memoriam Gallery at Oscar.com.”

While I had admittedly only been looking for Sarah’s name, there were a number of other individuals in the film industry who left from the montage who had passed during the year (including at least a few who had died while filming), making me think about how we value the life of one person over another.  The whole segment was morbid in its placing higher stock on certain lives than others. (To be fair, members of the Academy have voiced similar sentiments) Most of the faces were those I knew — those that graced the small or silver screen, but many of the faces I care about were missing — those who light actor’s faces, or paint, or prop, or do stunts, or pull focus, or feed us, or set up scaffolding. Faces like Sarah’s. People largely behind the scenes also lost people they cared about, yet such lives were unrepresented, even one that was lost while making a film at the hand of negligence of the industry.  Ironically, Bette Midler herself sung it best as the segment faded:

“It must have been cold there in my shadow,
to never have sunlight on your face.
You were content to let me shine, that’s your way.
You always walked a step behind.”

As physicians, I hope that we never allow any one life to be valued above another, regardless of a person’s position, talent, looks, money, whether the person is steps ahead or behind. In the case of crew members injured or killed on film or television sets, someone (or ones) often neglect basic tenants of safety, frequently in the name of money. Every life deserves not only the best and equal treatment we can provide, but respect. I hope that as future physicians we remember that every patient belongs in our personal “In Memoriam.”  Just as a film crew member I hold Sarah in my memory and safety in my mind, and have pledged to speak up if I notice something unsafe on set; I hope as a physician I will do the same.  Corners cut due to time or money may mean the loss of a patient’s life, injury to an employee, or damage to a colleague’s career.  There is no need to produce films or practice medicine with arrogance by avoiding safety. Doing so disrespects the collective involvement of individuals in the case of film, and the doctor-patient relationship.

That’s a wrap.

Kate Joyce Kate Joyce (5 Posts)

Contributing Writer and Outreach Coordinator Emeritus

Northeast Ohio Medical University-Cleveland State University

Kate is an M1 at NEOMED in Rootstown, Ohio and part of the CSU/NEOMED partnership. She is excited to have the opportunity to marry two of her passions--writing and health --with the team at in-Training. Prior to entering medical school, Kate had the opportunity to earn an MPH and work for several years with Children’s HealthWatch, a fantastic group that researches impacts of public policies on low-income families in pediatric primary care centers and emergency departments.

Between classes, she works as an EMT or on freelance film projects, practices amateur photography and gets lost in nature. She is particularly interested in physician advocacy, the role of narrative media in public health, urban community violence, nutrition, international health, early childhood education and ending cycles of poverty.