Imagine that it’s four o’clock in the morning and you can’t sleep…so you settle down on your couch to watch television. You’re elderly and a big fan of NY MED, “the popular real-life medical series set at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, starring Dr. Mehmet Oz.” You flip on the DVR and the previous night’s episode of that show appears on your television screen…and you witness the death of your husband. That’s exactly what happened to Anita Chanko, 75, on an August night in 2012.
Chanko remembered the program that she watched that August night more than two years ago: “It starts off, there’s a woman with stomach cancer and her family, and then there’s somebody with a problem with their baby, I think it was a heart. And then I see the doctor that treated my husband.”
Chanko’s husband Mark had died sixteen months earlier—after he had been struck by a sanitation truck while crossing a street not far from his home. Doctors and nurses at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center reportedly “tried in vain to save his life.”
Chanko stared at the television screen and “saw the chief surgery resident Sebastian Schubl, responding to an emergency in which a man is hit by a vehicle.”
Charles Ornstein (ProPublica):
“And then I see, even with the blurred picture, you could tell it was him,” she said. “You could hear his speech pattern. I hear my husband say, ‘Does my wife know I’m here?’.”
There was no doubt in her mind: The blurred-out man moaning in pain was her husband of almost 46 years, the Korean War veteran she met in a support group for parents without partners.
“I hear them saying his blood pressure is falling. I hear them getting out the paddles and then I hear them saying, ‘OK, are you ready to pronounce him?’.”
She clenched her fists so tightly that “the palms of my hands almost looked like stigmata” and her mouth got so dry that her tongue stuck to the roof “as if I had just eaten a whole jar of peanut butter.”
“I saw my husband die before my eyes.”
Anita Chanko witnessed the death of her husband…and it came as a shock–especially because no one in her family “had given NY Med permission to film Mr. Chanko’s treatment at the hospital or to broadcast the moments leading up to his death.”
Ornstein said that the intimate details of anyone’s death “are supposed to be shared only with a patient and whoever they designate, under a federal law known as Hipaa.” He noted that since the law was passed eighteen years ago, hospitals and doctors “have put in place an ever-expanding list of rules meant to protect patient privacy. Hospitals warn staff members not to discuss patients’ conditions on elevators. Drug stores ask customers to stand back so they don’t overhear information about others’ prescriptions.” He added that despite all the growing sensitivity, medical reality shows like NY Med “have proliferated, piggybacking off popular fictional counterparts like ER, Grey’s Anatomy, and House.”
Ornstein continued by saying that groups like the American Medical Association and medical ethicists are concerned that television shows like these “exploit patients’ pain for public consumption, but their makers argue that they educate viewers and inspire people to choose careers in medicine.”
Terence Young, the executive producer of NY Med, wrote in an email: “We have heard many stories of people who were inspired to go to medical school, to become nurses or paramedics, or to head into particular specialties like trauma or transplant surgery after watching our show.” According to Ornstein, Young declined to discuss Mr. Chanko’s case or to be interviewed for the ProPublica article.
Ornstein said that NewYork-Presbyterian—as well as some other hospitals—“have seized upon such shows as a way to showcase themselves, vying to allow TV crews to film their staff and patients — even emergency-room patients sometimes in no condition to give permission.” He noted that when the first season of NY Med was broadcast in 2012, Myrna Manners, who was the hospital’s vice president of public affairs at the time, told PR Week, “You can’t buy this kind of publicity, an eight-part series on a major broadcast network.”
The most troubling aspect of the Chanko story is that that episode of NY Med “added a coda of anger to more than a year of grief.” Ornstein wrote that the Chanko’s daughter Pamela said that “seeing the specifics of her father’s injuries and death on TV sent her spiraling back into clinical depression.” Pamela Chanko added, “It just sent me straight back to square one.”
It was reported that Kenneth Chanko, Mark Chanko’s son, had filed complaints “with the hospital, the New York State Department of Health, ABC, a hospital accrediting group, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ civil rights office.” In his complaint to the hospital, Kenneth Chanko wrote that the program had caused him “great emotional distress and psychological harm.” He also wrote, “I had to unnecessarily relive my father’s death at your hospital a second time, while knowing that the public at large was able to — and continues to be able to — watch my father’s passing, for the purposes of what can only be described as drive-by voyeuristic ‘entertainment.'”
Ornstein said that ABC swiftly removed the program episode involving the death of Mr. Chanko “from its website, DVDs and future viewings (although not from the promotional blurb for the episode, which still says ‘Sebastian Schubl, a Dr. McDreamy-like young trauma surgeon, tries to save the day when a critically injured pedestrian struck by a vehicle is brought to the ER.’) In 2013, the state cited the hospital for violating Mr. Chanko’s rights.”
The Chanko family was not satisfied with the response to their complaint. The family sued ABC, NewYork-Presbyterian and Dr. Schubl for damages. Ornstein said that an appellate panel had recently dismissed the case. The Chanko family has asked that the panel’s decision be reviewed. Ornstein added that both Dr. Schubl and NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital declined to comment for the ProPublica article.
In court filings, the hospital and ABC do not dispute that they did not have consent from Mr. Chanko or his family, but they say the patient is not identifiable to the public. The network has asserted that because “NY Med” is produced by its news division, it is protected by the First Amendment. Lawyers for NewYork-Presbyterian have argued that the state does not recognize a common law right to privacy and that any privacy right Mr. Chanko did have ended upon his death. They say that the Chankos themselves are responsible for their loss of privacy.
“There would today still be no identification of the patient or his family but for the latter’s publication via this lawsuit,” a brief for the hospital says.
Click here to read the full text of the ProPublica article When a Patient’s Death is Broadcast Without Permission.
About NY Med (ABC)
Each episode in this eight-part series toggles between the renowned surgeons of Manhattan’s New York Presbyterian Hospital and the gritty world of trauma surgeons at Newark’s University Hospital where the ER is a doorway to the mean streets of one of America’s most violent cities. This limited series takes a deep dive into high stakes medicine through the eyes of unforgettable characters.