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.

"I still can't believe I told this family he wasn't going to die," says the doctor, who adds that New Screen "dropped the ball" in their dealings with the family, and that if the couple were promised the footage, they should have gotten it. Major-Kincade does think that "everyone in the NICU knew [the footage taken] was going to be on ABC," but acknowledges that when the couple signed the consent, the doctor had told them the baby would be all right.

"If Nathan had not died, we would not be having this conversation," says Major-Kincade. At the same time, she admits, if Nathan had not died, then Major-Kincade and the Walter family probably wouldn't have been on the show's premiere at all.

According to Major-Kincade, Nathan died of an E. coli infection that is sometimes present in the blood and urine of new mothers and babies. The doctor says the E. coli that killed Nathan was not the same strain that most people think of when they hear E. coli -- it's different from bacteria found in undercooked meat. Major-Kincade says E. coli infections are one of the three most common infections in newborn babies, but Chad and Shani find it odd that even though reality shows like Houston Medical purport to be educational, the producers never mentioned the term E. coli on the episode featuring the Walters.

ABC's promo for the show pictured Shani weeping at Nathan's bedside. Viewers could download the clip from a Web site.
ABC's promo for the show pictured Shani weeping at Nathan's bedside. Viewers could download the clip from a Web site.

"We find it very suspicious," says Shani, who adds that it took five months for the couple to get the autopsy report and that they still have not received Nathan's death certificate.

Shani says the experience has left her nervous about germs, and that she was shocked that the hospital let New Screen producers into the NICU without cleaning up and after smoking cigarettes.

"Because Nathan died of an E. coli infection, and the things we witnessed in the hospital -- people not washing their hands, people coming in reeking of smoke -- I was so freaked out I would sit in the shower when I would come home," she says. The couple has not decided whether to take legal action.

While Major-Kincade doesn't think New Screen had anything to do with Nathan's infection, she understands why the Walters are so upset.

"I feel for anyone whose child died and it has to be repeatedly shown on national television," says the doctor.

Major-Kincade admits that even though she supports shows like Houston Medical, she was disappointed that New Screen chose to use the most intense footage of the Walter family for the show's premiere. And while Major-Kincade says tragic events like what happened to the Walters occur every day in the NICU, "I think the same could have been achieved without showing Mom screaming," she says. She also feels producers crossed the line in another episode where they showed a medical student hocking personal items at a pawnshop to pay an electric bill.

Someone who seems unconcerned with the production values of Houston Medical is City Councilmember Michael Berry, who has dubbed himself the chairman of the Save Houston Medical Task Force. When ABC announced in late July that it was not planning to renew the program, Berry created the task force and held a press conference August 8 to unveil the donated Web site, which Berry says has a market value of $25,000. The flashy site includes a photo of Berry and a letter from him urging Houstonians to sign up for the task force and receive regular e-mail updates (as of press time, ABC has told New Screen to continue shooting at Memorial Hermann, but it has not yet agreed to air more episodes).

"I love the show," says Berry. "For me I feel it's in the realm of things I'm supposed to do for the City Council, which is promote the city. Anytime you can see [trauma surgeon] Red Duke, who is as good as they get, as a Houstonian and get that message out to the world, that's a good thing."

The Walters say they tried numerous times to contact Berry, but he did not call them back. He finally agreed to meet with the couple early this month after Chad informed Berry the family was speaking to the Houston Press.

"I've been told by New Screen Concepts that in the years they've done this, this is the first time anything like this has happened," says Berry. "I feel it would be inappropriate for me to go to this family and say anything other than 'Gosh, I'm sorry.' "

Although New Screen would not speak with the Press, according to interviews given to the Houston Chronicle, the company began scouting locations for a reality television show in March 2001. Producers said they shot so much film at Memorial Hermann that for every minute shown on television, 200 minutes of unused footage remained. New Screen, which has produced shows such as What Every Baby Knows for Lifetime and The Senior Prom for ABC, was given unlimited and unsupervised access to the hospital, and spent about $700,000 on each of the six final episodes. Memorial Hermann was not paid for its participation, but senior vice president and CEO for Memorial Hermann James Eastham was quoted in the Chronicle as saying that "the intent is to showcase the high level of care and compassion that's evident here."

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