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Pittsburgh paramedics hit small screen in TLC series

Friday, October 08, 1999

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

The Learning Channel's "Paramedics" and "Trauma: Life in the E.R." trained their cameras on Pittsburgh life-savers this summer and the results play out on the small screen beginning with "Paramedics" tomorrow night.



When: 8 p.m. Monday on TLC.

"Trauma: Life in the E.R."

When: 8 p.m. Oct. 26 on TLC


If "Trauma" is the real-life counterpart to NBC's "ER," "Paramedics" parallels the new drama "Third Watch." Tomorrow viewers get to ride along with three Pittsburgh paramedics as they respond to drug overdoses, a seizure and an assault victim. While the cases aren't all that compelling, the paramedics are.

"Paramedics" is edited to make the caregivers heroic, but the Pittsburghers on screen need little help. What's most striking is the empathy they show all their patients, even those who bring illness upon themselves.

James Brown, a five-year veteran, treats a heroin overdose patient with care. At the same time he gently suggests, "It's kind of hard to be a mom when you're high."

Brown, who calls Pittsburgh "the biggest little town you've ever seen," also reveals heroin is a growing problem in the 'Burgh. "It has increased in the past year as far as our call volume," he says.

Bryan "Kujo" Kuszajewski tries to comfort an elderly heart patient and put her at ease even though he can only find her pulse in one spot, a bad sign. During the ride to the hospital he has to give her a mild shock with defibrillator paddles.

Darnella Wilson, a paramedic for 23 years, was the first black woman on the force in Pittsburgh. She counsels a domestic abuse victim, proving Brown's axiom that a paramedic must be "the total package. You need to be able to respond to calls, treat people appropriately and deal with the problem."

There are plenty of the expected pronouncements about how "some days you actually save a life and it makes it all worthwhile," but the Pittsburgh paramedics also show a lighter side.

Kuszajewski reveals one of Murphy's Laws for paramedics: Every time he tries to watch a game on TV or eat a meal, a call comes in.

Both "Paramedics" and "Trauma" begin with viewer discretion advisories for graphic content, but judging by each show's Pittsburgh sojourn, "Trauma" is more likely to make viewers uncomfortable. It's also more dramatic and engaging.

Filmed in the emergency room of Allegheny General Hospital, "Trauma" (premiering at 8 p.m. Oct. 26) focuses on the staff and more explicitly on the cases they encounter. Unlike the cases on "Paramedics," those on "Trauma" take longer to reach a definitive conclusion. For much of the hour it's unclear whether a car crash victim with brain swelling will survive.

"Trauma" plays on the nerves and emotions more than "Paramedics." Whether it's the gross-out sounds of a saw cutting into skull or the compassion viewers will feel for the friends and families of those whose lives hang in the balance, "Trauma" is not easy, feel-good TV. But it offers a necessary reminder about the fragility of life.

"Trauma" in Pittsburgh has one good-humored story about emergency medicine resident Dr. William Horgan, who must have his appendix removed.

"I can't believe I'm a patient," he says. "I've never had surgery. I only send people to surgery."

A second Pittsburgh installment of "Paramedics" will air Dec. 27 and "Trauma's" second local episode is scheduled to air Dec. 28.

Both shows are fun to watch for the hey-look-it's-Pittsburgh factor. There's a recognizable Downtown McDonald's and soaring shots of the skyline. And during a stop at Brown's home, WPXI weekend anchor Jodine Costanzo can be seen on a TV in the background. One additional Pittsburgh episode of each show will air sometime early next year, but no air dates have been announced.

If not for the local angle, I can't imagine watching these shows week after week. Both have cult followings, but "Paramedics" seems especially lacking in drama. "Trauma" offers a greater adrenaline rush, but it also threatens to be more depressing, which can be just as much of a turn-off.

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