Tuesday, February 15, 2005


Hollywood actor Ray Liotta's guest-starring portrayal of a man dying of long-term alcohol abuse on last night's ER was profoundly moving.

I have long been a fan of the show - it's one of the very few things on TV that I watch with any commitment. And every so often it perfectly counter-balances the relentless pressure of emergency medicine (conveyed through the use of constantly-changing camera positions) by focusing-in on one patient (followed in real-time over forty-five minutes), and the emotional impact of that patient's predicament on the medics who attend him.

In this particular episode, our tendency to be over-quick to pass judgement on others (not least as we seek to survive in a pressurised situation...) was exposed - without (and this dignity adds all the weight in the world) passing quick-and-easy judgement on us. The character Charlie is variously, and wrongly, judged to be homeless by the hospital staff; to be faking illness in order to jump the queue by another patient; to be a waste of time and resources by Dr Pratt - alcohol abuse as self-inflicted condition v Dr Kovacs' understanding of alcoholism as a disease; to disqualify himself for care - again, by Dr Pratt, on the basis of being an ex-convict, and guilty of murder at that; to be a total failure as a father by his estranged son - 'phoned twice by the nurse, but not prepared to see his father one last time before he dies...

And yet as the story unfolds our prejudices are challenged by his story - of how he turned to alcohol after his wife was killed by a passing car, as she crossed the street on an errand he should have made himself; of how his drinking led him to stab another man in a bar, a horrific accident; of having his son taken away from him...And each medic who attends him is confronted by their own past - the father Dr Pratt never knew; the wife and children Dr Kovacs lost in the ethnic cleansing of the Balkan Conflict; Dr Lockheart's own alcoholism, being kept under control through attending the AA...

Ray Liotta played Charlie with a degree of dignity that deeply honours ordinary men and women who struggle to cope with what life throws at them; and who often screw-up; and who don't need our judgement to deal with on top of everything else - but who could use a listening ear to hear their confession, and gracious lips to pronounce the absolution they are longing for, and a strengthening hand to reach out and touch them as they face death. I'd like to be more like that.

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