Medical misadventures and miracles

THE KNICK: Waiting lists and hospital food aren't great, but The Knick will make you grateful for modern medicine.
THE KNICK: Waiting lists and hospital food aren't great, but The Knick will make you grateful for modern medicine.

This is no genteel Downton Abbey with stethoscopes. 

Set in 1900, it revolves around a fictional New York hospital, the underfunded Knickerbocker.

In last week’s opening episode, there was much blood and gore, and surgical equipment that looked like it might be more suitable for a farrier than a surgeon.   

 In the opening scenes, surgeon John Thackery (Clive Owen) barely had time to drag himself from an opium den and inject himself with cocaine before he was assisting with a caesarean section. It resulted in the death of mother and child and the subsequent suicide of the main surgeon. And if the surgery didn’t kill you, the bedside manner probably would have done.  

‘‘He’s dying in front of our eyes,’’ said a doctor standing over a fully conscious patient. 

That’s not what you want to hear when you have septicaemia.

But, despite, or perhaps because of, this tendency to show the darker side of life, I found it quite engaging.  Sure, part of that was the constant relief I felt that I live in 2014, but the show does paint an interesting portrait of the period – from the teeming streets of New York filled with horse-drawn carriages, to the social issues such as racism, sexism, terrible poverty and health officials on the take; there’s plenty of all of these at the Knickerbocker.   

Meanwhile, Owen puts in a great performance as the intriguingly conflicted Thackery; a man who is battling addictions but who is passionate about the potential of surgical developments of the time.

Fast forward a hundred-plus years and the world of medicine still has its problems.  Surgery is much safer, but things still go wrong. 

In British doco, The Truth About Medical Mistakes (Wednesday, 8.30pm, BBC Knowledge), Dr Kevin Fong, a consultant anaesthetist, tells us about a shocking case where a patient died during a routine sinus operation. The problem is that ‘‘under pressure, doctors and nurses, like everyone else, make mistakes’’.  So he sets out to find some solutions.

He finds surprisingly simple ones in the world of the fire service, aviation and Formula One racing. And also visits a London hospital with an operating theatre where they simulate certain scenarios as part of training.  A sort of flight simulator but for doctors, I guess. What would John Thackery have made of it?

Then we see trainee anaesthetist Duncan dealing with a catalogue of hypothetical misfortunes in the simulator, while  Fong and the tutor chuckle away behind a two-way mirror.  ‘‘We’re deliberately pushing Duncan outside his comfort zone ... as a learning tool,’’ says the tutor. But it looks a bit like they’re also doing it for a laugh.   

Either way, Fong is a genial presenter and this is a well-researched and fascinating documentary.  

The Knick, Thursday, 8.30pm, Soho