Reality TV Bites

Shani and Chad Walter lost one of their twin baby boys. Thanks to Houston Medical, thousands of Americans got to witness their pain.

Emotionally exhausted, Chad broke down in the office of one of his law professors and asked for help. The professor put Chad in touch with another law professor, Richard Alderman, who contacted New Screen on the Walters' behalf and arranged for the footage to be delivered to the Walter house by Alderman on February 10 at 9 a.m. The agreement called for Alderman to leave the couple alone with the tape, then return to pick it up and take it back to New Screen's producers.

Although they had been promised their own copy to keep, at this point Chad and Shani were willing to agree to anything because they realized they had no bargaining power. When they got the tape, they were shocked. It was only one hour long, and the footage of Nathan's baptism -- what they had wanted all along -- wasn't on it.

"After we saw the tape, I was floored," says Chad, near tears. "I thought, 'They have left out so much stuff.' "

Cancer patient Mary Sharkey also was profiled on Houston Medical, but unlike the Walters, she had plenty of time to decide if she wanted to participate.
Jef Fitlow
Cancer patient Mary Sharkey also was profiled on Houston Medical, but unlike the Walters, she had plenty of time to decide if she wanted to participate.
Although he had to be tube-fed when he first came home, Grant is now in good health.
Bill Olive
Although he had to be tube-fed when he first came home, Grant is now in good health.

The day before the couple saw the one-hour tape, Chad wrote a four-page letter to Rosa Montes at Memorial Hermann informing her of what had transpired between New Screen and the family so far and letting her know how upset they were. The next day, Montes responded with a brief three-line e-mail that thanked them for keeping her informed and let them know that her thoughts "are with you both."

After they saw the tape the couple called the hospital's ethicist, Ginny Gremillion, who contacted New Screen on the couple's behalf. She then informed Chad and Shani that the production company and ABC refused to let them watch all four hours of the Walter footage until after all six episodes of Houston Medical were aired. That meant the couple wouldn't see the footage or find out what exactly had been filmed until late July -- five months away. Gremillion told the couple there was nothing else she could do. (The couple finally received all the footage after the last episode aired.)

During the weeks preceding the premiere of the show, the couple saw several promos for it -- the one most frequently aired featured Shani becoming hysterical at Nathan's bedside. Entertainment Tonight even ran a clip of it on its Web site. On the day of the premiere, Good Morning America, which was filming in Houston, invited Major-Kincade to be on the show. While there, the doctor saw some of the footage of the premiere and called the Walters to warn them that the images they would be seeing that night would be especially intense. At this point, the couple was so mistrustful of the production company that they told the doctor they weren't surprised to hear that their dying baby would be one of the main focal points of the first episode.

On the night of June 17, after much hype from ABC's local affiliate (Channel 13) and the Houston Chronicle, the footage New Screen Concepts thought the Walters shouldn't watch alone was finally broadcast all over the United States. Chad and Shani couldn't be together the night it aired; he was on an internship in Dallas and she was in Houston with Grant.

"I cried through most of it," says Chad.

"It was weird, it was embarrassing," says Shani quietly. "It was like watching someone else, but still, it was embarrassing."

The next day, Chad went to a restaurant in Dallas and a few people stared at him. Shani and Chad discovered that the television critic for The Denver Post had called the Walters "oddly exhibitionistic." That afternoon, Shani was in her car when she turned on The Chris Baker Show on KPRC/950 AM. Baker was taking calls about Houston Medical, and Shani listened as people phoned in and said, "I can't believe that woman let them film her!"

The scorn of the critics and the self-righteousness of the viewers hurt. But what really bothered the Walter family was that on June 17 the death of their child became the third most popular television event in the country.

"It's disgusting that that would be entertaining to someone," says Shani. "It makes people feel good to sit around and cry and feel sorry for us. But I don't think it should feel good."

Most of the people the Walters are angry with don't want to talk. Jonathan Lowe of Memorial Hermann's public relations department would say only that Memorial Hermann was "confident that ABC and New Screen Concepts made every step available to work with the Walter family." Because the matter was between the family and the television people, Lowe says, Memorial Hermann is staying out of it. Rosa Montes would not comment, and calls to hospital ethicist Ginny Gremillion were not returned.

Janis Biewend, a producer for New Screen, said that out of respect for the Walters, the company had no comment. ABC echoed that statement.

The only representative of the hospital who would speak was Major-Kincade, a funny, fast-talking mother of two who has also been featured on Lifetime Television's Women Docs. As an African-American woman, Major-Kincade says she wanted to take part in the reality television shows to serve as a role model for other women and people of color who are considering a career in medicine. She stays in touch with the Walter family, and she has regrets about that night.

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