Is the baby still breathing? The riveting, discomfiting ‘Trauma’

RTÉ’s fly-on-the-car-crash documentary is a study of composure under pressure

Dr Sinead McArdle, a consultant in emergency medicine in the Mater Hospital

Dr Sinead McArdle, a consultant in emergency medicine in the Mater Hospital

 

There are some people who can keep their cool in a crisis, like nerveless trained professionals in a hospital’s A&E department. And then there are many people who do not, like me, or the makers of a factual medical programme. To be fair to Trauma: Ireland’s Medical Emergencies (RTÉ Two, Thursday), a fly-on-the-car-crash documentary set among emergency responders and medical staff, its own sense of panic is mostly in the editing.

It announces itself with a fractured chatter of heart-stopping details (“Is the baby still breathing?”), quotes that float on the screen with menacingly emphasised text (“You’ve got one STAB WOUND in your left CHEST. It’s CLOSE to your HEART”) and a soundtrack that finds equal room for accelerating rock music, alarming sirens and thudding heart beats. You need to keep a set of defibrillators nearby just to watch it.

Yet Trauma, the camera operators seem to know, is as much a study of composure under pressure. The medics in its frame are calmer than cream, which is no small order when they’re dealing with a patient whose ear has been bitten off by an attacker, a woman who has been knocked unconsicous on a GAA pitch, a man with a ruptured aorta, and a recognisable radio DJ facing possible paralysis. All this, while a camera is trained on them.

Warranted exasperation

In one rare scene of warranted exasperation, when a high-risk patient with multiple stab wounds and a connoisseur’s knowledge of pain medication insists that only a cigarette will make him happy, the consultant snaps: “Yeah, you’ll die happy then.”

That patient was blurred onscreen, but everybody else in the first of four episodes has agreed to be exposed. If that’s uncomfortable for the viewer, it is because you see real people at their most vulnerable, their prognoses working like cliffhangers, with no obviously edifying value. (Even the programme’s credits thank participants for allowing it to “intrude”.) To see a 72-year-old man, confused after a car crash, being prepped for surgery, or RTÉ’s Ronan Collins told about his chances of paralysis, then later peering into his open spine, makes you feel party to invasive procedures. 

Still, it’s riveting, discomfiting television, particularly for the individual details the cameras linger long enough to capture. When Anne Marie Murphy, the GAA player, is in the clear (like all the patients we meet) and the clock strikes midnight, she confides that she has not yet found a birthday present for her fiancée and teammate beside her, Sarah Brophy. Brophy laughs. Not all emergencies have to be graphic.

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