- Bill Zarchy / Writer • Photographer • Storyteller - http://billzarchy.com/blog -

Shooting Miracles: How to Deal with Medical Locations

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“Ambient Room” with soothing lighting in hospital in Bruges, Belgium

Originally published in HDPro Guide magazine, 2014

It’s still dark out as we pull up to the hospital on a frosty Chicago morning at six. One of the nurses greets us quietly, and we roll our cameras, monitors, lighting, and audio equipment through the bowels of the hospital to the corridor with the operating rooms. In two hours we’ll be filming heart surgery.

We spend the time gowning up and cleaning our gear, chatting with the staff, and going over, for the umpteenth time, where to position ourselves, when to put on our x-ray protection, how often the lights will go off and on during the procedure, how long we’ll be shooting continuously. Once the nurses and techs have prepped the room and the patient, the doctors arrive and things get going quickly and calmly.

The main doctor, whom we will interview later in the day, makes a small incision in the patient’s upper thigh, inserts a catheter in the leg artery, and pushes it up through the chest into the heart. This patient, who is awake the whole time, receives a wire mesh stent to keep open a collapsing or occluded artery near his heart. The whole thing takes less than an hour, with little or no pain. Miraculous.

Despite a recurring nightmare that I will asphyxiate a patient by standing on his oxygen line during an operation, my crew and I manage once again to comport ourselves well. The procedure is a success. The patient, remarkably, will be up and walking about later the same day, with relief from the chest pain and fatigue which brought him in.

Wearing lead floral apron and thyroid guard, for working near x-ray and diagnostic tools, Leeds, UK

Things certainly have changed.

When I was a young pup starting out, I worked as a camera assistant for a local San Francisco crew shooting brain and open-heart surgery. The blood and the sounds and smells of a power saw cutting through cranial and breast bone repulsed me like a scary horror movie, about as bad as it gets.

Since that grisly beginning, I’ve worked in many different medical settings—on psychiatric training films for pharmaceutical companies, marketing films for medical imaging and equipment companies, TV series on medical ethics, and broadcasts to teach doctors new methods. Shooting medical films can be immensely rewarding—promoting products that have profound effects on people’s lives, more so than when our mission is selling paint, cosmetics, or the latest Silicon Valley widgets.

Much of my work in recent years has centered on minimally invasive procedures, starting with coronary angioplasty, a scientific triumph from the 80s: a doctor inserts a catheter through a small cut in an artery in the thigh, carrying any of several instruments through the arteries in the chest and into the heart … and sometimes into the brain. Small incisions, greatly reduced trauma to the body, often no general anesthesia. The vast majority of cases have successful outcomes.

Besides the stent insertion, I’ve filmed medical teams performing these miracles in the U.S., Europe, Asia, and South America:

Our projects focus on the use of CT Scan, MRI, x-ray, ultrasound, and other advanced medical imaging techniques to diagnose and treat heart ailments or brain, breast, and prostate cancers, among others. In most cases, we interview the doctor and the patient—to discuss the dangerous or debilitating conditions forcing these interventions, and to highlight often-dramatic improvements in quality of life afterward.

When shooting medical personnel performing miracles, it’s always important to do your homework, play by their rules, and crank up empathy for the patients.

Full sterile garb for operations and procedures which involve a large sterile field

Useful guidelines for shooting medical procedures

Shooting at a nurse’s station in a Denver hospital

Years ago, my crew and I were shooting in a hospital south of San Francisco. After several days, we started to wrap our video and electric cables to move to another department. One of the nurses, who had been working with us all week, told us suddenly, “After handling those cables, make sure you wash your hands before you eat. You know, this place is full of sick people.” Good advice, as it turned out, because there was a staph infection rampant in the hospital at the time. Unfortunately, she didn’t convey this safety tip until Day Four, and about half the crew (including me!) fell sick with intestinal agony, some for as long as two weeks.

Filming medical procedures requires you to be responsible and empathetic. Recording a sensitive operation is a privilege not to be taken lightly. Remember that the most important thing—really, the only important thing—is the wellbeing of the patient. If you establish the rules with your medical hosts ahead of time, respect their needs, and stay out of the way, you might be present at the moment when someone’s health starts on the road to dramatic improvement.

Filming MRI procedure in Shenyang, China, hospital

Some basic precautions for shooting in someone else’s work space

In addition to respecting the special conditions of medical procedures, take these basic precautions in all locations:

  • Find out where power is available for your equipment. Don’t plug your lights into the same circuits as any medical or computer equipment. Bring plenty of stingers—AC extension cords—so you can bring power in from other rooms if necessary.
  • Secure your cables so that people don’t trip on them and carts and gurneys can avoid them.
  • Tape down lightweight cables by running gaffer tape perpendicular to the length of the cable.Cover heavier cables with rubber or carpeted floor mats.
  • Try to avoid running tape along the length of the cable; this increases the chances of the two sticky sides touching and fusing together when you futilely try to remove them. When it’s time to wrap, pull up on the tape, not the cable.
  • Whenever you use gaffer tape or other sticky film-industry tapes, always fold back the end about a half inch to form a tab. This will make the tape much easier to remove later, especially on carpet after being stepped on all day during production.
  • Fly cables over doorways and halls whenever possible, especially in locations where beds, gurneys, or carts pass by regularly.

Filming doctors in hospital in Shanghai, China, as they examine x-rays.

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