Twice within the past month I have turned the TV on to one of my favorite shows to find a plot that includes food allergies. The topic is hot, in more ways than one. I’m not surprised that drama writers – especially those who need engaging twists and turns for suspenseful stories – would latch onto anaphylaxis as a way to move the story forward. But, I’m concerned. Let’s take a look at the stories:
Spoiler alert: don’t read on if you watch these shows and haven’t seen these episodes.
The Firm – This NBC drama is based on John Grisham’s novel. At one point, Mitch McDeere (whose family is on the run and under FBI protection) and his brother, decide to go rogue and take down the leader of an illegal insurance operation to murder patients who may cost Noble Insurance too much money. (Yes, it’s a mouthful of a plot.) The bad guy, Stack, has a severe peanut allergy. We know this because McDeere found it in his military file. Stack is ex-special forces.
McDeere and his family cook up a scheme to “disable” Stack, by forcing him to have an anaphylactic reaction, giving them just enough time to steal the special codes needed to break into the secure room where the information they need is located.
There are a number of factual inaccuracies in the story:
1. The allergic reaction is caused when Stack picks up a phone that has peanut oil on it. While we don’t know for sure that the peanut oil they used was highly refined, it’s unlikely that peanut oil could have caused the reaction we saw (highly refined oils are fat and do not contain the proteins that cause allergic reactions.) That said, the allergic reaction was believable – Stack swelled up, rashes appeared, he quickly passed out.
2. Stack was military. The military does not accept candidates with anaphylactic reactions to food. Apparently the writers either missed that point, or decided to ignore it for the benefit of the plot.
3. The McDeere’s knew that they had only 15 fifteen minutes to administer epinephrine before Stack would die. Except, in real life, it could take as little as 6 minutes. I guess 6 minutes wasn’t enough time for them to break into the secret room and grab the hard drive. On the positive side, they did use the Epi-pen (which Stack carries with him but they had stolen) properly.
And there is a serious moral/legal dilemma here:
When would it ever be right for someone to intentionally cause an anaphylactic reaction? Keep in mind that it was the good guys who did this, and Stack could have died. With this kind of behavior on TV, it’s no wonder we see kids on the playground threatening food-allergic children with peanuts.
Smash – An NBC drama about the making of a Broadway musical, with a cutthroat environment – especially among the stars vying for the lead. The actress brought in to play Marilyn, Rebecca Duval (played by Uma Thurman) has a peanut allergy. She makes it clear that she has an allergy, and is very diligent about it. The day after the first show (where no one clapped at the end), Rebecca drinks her morning smoothie that has been spiked with peanut, and she collapses.
About the facts:
1. This allergic reaction is somewhat less believable. Rebecca appears to be having difficulty breathing, but she keeps drinking while this happens and we see little else.
2. After the incident, the director tells the cast that Rebecca has been “sedated” and would be out of the hospital in a few days. There is no mention of her being given adrenaline/epinephrine. Even if I give the writers the benefit of the doubt and assume that the character must have been given epinephrine, I’m not aware of sedation as a course of treatment after epinephrine.
And, once again, the dilemma:
Rebecca believes that someone must have intentionally spiked her drink. The episode ends with everyone wondering who might have done it? Karen, the under-study? Ivy, the cast member who originally played Marilyn? Worse yet, nobody cares. Rebecca herself doesn’t even want to know.
Again, I ask – is it ever okay to intentionally cause an allergic reaction?
We see horrific crimes being committed in TV dramas every day. Drama is drama, after all, and attempted murder is attempted murder, whether it’s by a gunshot, or an intentional poisoning. But these stories of intentional peanut allergy poisoning aren’t being treated like the horrific crimes they are. There’s almost an implication that it’s okay to poison someone with a food allergen if you have an Epi-pen nearby. Don’t we have enough accidental allergic reactions?
What do you think?