Inspiration for ‘House’ talks medicine, journalism

When a television producer named Paul Attanasio called up Dr. Lisa Sanders MED ’79 and asked her to be a medical adviser for a show about a doctor based on Sherlock Holmes, Sanders thought to herself: “This isn’t going to last. Sure, sign me up.”

That television series, “House,” is now in its sixth season and was the most watched show in the world in 2008, with more than 81.8 million viewers in 66 countries.

Dr. Lisa Sanders MED '79 speaks Monday at a Master's Tea in Pierson College.
Wanwan Lu
Dr. Lisa Sanders MED '79 speaks Monday at a Master's Tea in Pierson College.

At a Pierson Master’s Tea on Monday, Sanders shared her opinion with some 50 attendees about the series (she is a fan, despite her distaste for certain qualities of the lead character) and weighed in on the ways the show is and is not realistic.

“There is no hospital in America where four able-bodied, major-check-cashing doctors spend all of their time on one patient at a time,” Sanders said to laughter, alluding to Princeton‑Plainsboro Teaching Hospital, the fictional medical institution on the show.

Sanders talked about the importance of talking to patients — something House rarely does on the show — and about her career in both medicine and journalism.

“House hates everything I love about medicine,” Sanders said. “His motto is, ‘Everyone lies.’ The title of my book is ‘Every Patient Tells a Story.’ My answer to him is, ‘Everybody lies to you, buddy, because you’re a jerk.’ ”

Sanders’ monthly column, “Diagnosis,” published in The New York Times Magazine, originally inspired Attanasio’s call.

“[Paul] is a hypochondriac, and, like many hypochondriacs, he followed my column,” she said.

As a journalist and a doctor, Sanders said she enjoys the depth and information that shows like “House” offer. She mentioned that in some cases the show inspires patients to be more informed about their own conditions as well.

“The way diagnosis was portrayed on television was as a one-liner,” Sanders said, referring to older medical programs. “It was, ‘I’m sorry, you have leukemia.’ And I think it’s because [television producers] thought that people wouldn’t understand. They were afraid no one would get it.” Now, she said, shows like “House” and “Grey’s Anatomy” delve into the detective work that accompanies the practice of medicine.

When asked how much of House’s morally questionable actions are fabricated, Sanders replied that she does her best never to lie to patients.

“And I have never broken into anyone’s house,” she said, referring to the episodes in which House and his team search a patient’s home for clues to help determine the patient’s condition.

She also pointed out that the doctors on “House” all do everything themselves, from transporting patients on gurneys to operating MRI machines to doing their own surgery — without masks.

“If your internist [a doctor who specializes in internal medicine] comes at you with a scalpel, run away screaming,” she advised. Sanders said that many of the story lines in the series are taken directly from difficult diagnoses with which she or her colleagues have grappled.

More often than not, the drama on “House” drives the story forward, Sanders said, adding that the show’s writers choose diseases that fit the season’s story arc.

“I always wondered how they got the medical basis for the plot lines,” audience member Dan Hausrath ’11, who is pre-med, said. “Now I know there’s someone at least trying to get it right.”

Sanders did recall once writing an impassioned e-mail to “House” Executive Producer Tommy Moran ’89 about a scenario he had proposed that was medically impossible. His response consisted of three words: My way’s funnier.

“I watched it,” Sanders said. “And it was.”

Victoria Montanez ’13 said she is a fan of “House” but that the show was not the only reason she wanted to hear Sanders speak.

“I came mostly because I’m interested in the field of investigative medicine,” she said.

Sanders said she has always been interested in finding underlying stories and narratives. She majored in English at the College of William and Mary and, after graduating, worked first at ABC News and then CBS. But after roughly a decade in journalism, during which she won an Emmy while covering health and medicine, Sanders decided to study medicine herself. And she has had a prolific career in this field as well, writing extensively, practicing and teaching. In addition to having written three books, Sanders is an assistant clinical professor of internal medicine at the Yale School of Medicine.

“I think students are intrigued by lives that don’t necessarily follow the rules,” said English lecturer Margaret Spillane, who invited Sanders to speak. “We all need examples of people who, even when their lives are successful, aren’t afraid to take risks.”

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