TV’s best nurse characters

Certain shows portray nursing much better than others.Considering a career in nursing? For many, the first exposure they get to the nursing profession is through media depictions of the career on television shows, though these depictions may not be the most accurate. Before heading off to enroll in a nursing program, take a look at a few of the more accurate portrayals of nurses to make it to air:

“Nurse Jackie” – Nurse Jackie

Created by Evan Dunsky, Liz Brixius and Linda Wallem, this show is lauded as one of the best depictions of the nursing profession to appear on television.1 Played by Edie Falco, nurse Jackie is a layered and complex health care professional who is often forced to go up against significant obstacles in her quest to provide the best care for patients. However, the depiction isn’t all smiles and butterflies - Jackie must juggle the professional demands of the job with her own personal issues of substance abuse. The conflicting forces that are at play in Jackie’s life demonstrate how being a nurse is often fraught with difficulties but is ultimately very rewarding.

“Doctor Who” – Rory Williams

While the depiction of the nursing profession in Doctor Who may not be the most accurate, per se (after all, traveling through space and time to distant universes isn’t exactly in a nurse’s job description), the show gets points for depicting the reality of male nurses. The science fiction series is one of the longest-running TV shows in the world having first aired in 1963. While the characters are often switched out, the 2010 season included nurse Rory Williams, played by Arthur Darvill.2 Williams’ medical knowledge and skills often come in handy as he traverses the galaxy.

“Mercy” – Veronica Flanagan Callahan

Despite the show’s limited run, “Mercy” was top-notch in its portrayal of the hectic lives of nurses. The story centered on Mercy Hospital in New Jersey, and the trials and tribulations of the various health care professionals who worked there. Veronica Flanagan Callahan, played by Taylor Schilling, is a nurse who is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder after returning from serving as a nurse in Iraq. The character is wonderfully scripted and authentically acted, resulting in a truly memorable performance despite the show’s brief run. The way in which the nurses at Mercy Hospital fight for the patients in this series is a good representation of a nurses’ patient-first perspective.1

“HawthoRNe” – Christina Hawthorne

The title role in the television series “HawthoRNe” was played by Jada Pinkett Smith. In her role, Smith was the chief nursing officer at Virginia’s Richmond Trinity Hospital. The show is notable for portraying the life of a high-ranking nurse. The responsibilities of a nursing professional in Hawthorne’s position provide a revealing look into the actual lives of nurses, who are  all too often portrayed merely as doctors’ lackeys. In “Hawthorne,” the creators of the show were adamant about displaying the authority and skill necessary to be an effective nurse.2

“ER” – Samantha Taggart

Played by Linda Cardellini, Samantha Taggart was featured in the last six seasons of the long-running medical drama “ER.” The inclusion of the nurse character earned the show the designation of Most Improved on The Truth About Nursing’s ranking of the best and worst media portrayals of nurses between 2000 and 2009.1 A single mother who gave birth to her son when she was only 15, Taggart demonstrates the reality of nurses who are struggling to maintain a healthy work/life balance. The show is notable for portraying Taggart as possessing a very high level of skill, often completing difficult tasks that earn her the respect of the physicians working at the hospital.

These nurse characters on prominent television shows are just the first steps in the move toward creating a more balanced representation of the profession in the media. Many medical shows have been criticized for their lack of leading nurse characters or for perpetuating the “naughty nurse” stereotype. For example, the critically acclaimed shows “House” and “Grey’s Anatomy” each feature a large ensemble cast that is entirely filled with physicians. The nurses are portrayed as background characters whose only job is to do whatever the doctor requires of them. The nurse characters in this list are notable for their demonstration not only of diligence and medical skill, but also compassion and a strong patient-first mentality. Hopefully, this is the beginning of a trend as the media begins to phase out the tired stereotypes of nurses as being rowdy or irresponsible. The fight for a more realistic depiction of the nursing profession enjoyed a small victory with MTV’s reassessment of its reality show “Scrubbing In.” The show, which depicts nurses as rowdy young women, faced considerable backlash from prominent nursing advocacy groups, forcing the network to pull it from its primetime lineup and re-edit much of the footage.3 Hopefully this step in the right direction will be followed up with more programs like the ones listed above.

“The Truth About Nursing Decade AwardsRank Best and Worst Media Portrayals of 2000-2009″, The Truth About Nursing, http://www.truthaboutnursing.org/press/awards/2000-09_decade/awd.html

2“10 TV Nurses We’d Love to Work With”, Top RN to BSN, http://www.toprntobsn.com/tv-nurses/ 

3“Nurses in the Media”, Bobbie Berkowitz PhD RN FAAN, Columbia Nursing, http://www.cumc.columbia.edu/nursing/newsletter/201312/nursesinthemedia.php