What medical TV shows get wrong about seizures

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Medical TV shows may often be overly melodramatic, but many of the health emergencies they depict do happen in real life. (That is, perhaps, with a notable exception of preventing a bomb from exploding inside a patient’s abdomen, eh hem, Grey’s Anatomy.) And, as a result, when it comes to learning the basics about how to cope should a medical emergency happen in your life, people often take cues from how they’ve seen it done on TV. Yet, while TV may be an excellent forum for promoting awareness and proper first aid techniques, what about when the actors got it wrong? Aware that first aid education for seizure victims is lacking in the general public, Dr. Andrew Moeller of Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, set out to see what viewers might learn from seizure care shown on medical dramas, and how it stacked up with real-world protocol. What he found wasn’t too encouraging.

Sifting through 327 episodes of the four most highly rated U.S. medical dramas: House, Private Practice, the last five seasons of E.R., and yes, Grey’s Anatomy, Moeller identified 59 seizures depicted on the shows. Of those incidents, first aid administered to the “patients” was deemed appropriate less than 29% of the time, and found inappropriate in nearly 46% of cases—for example, when seizing patients were held down or something was put into the seizure victim’s mouth, both actions that directly conflict with real-life first aid protocol. In the other 25% of cases, care was categorized as “indeterminate.” The findings, which will be presented at a meeting of the American Academy of Neurology in Toronto this April, suggest the need for epilepsy organizations to exert more pressure on TV producers to portray seizure treatment in a more accurate way, Moeller argues, characterizing the findings as “a call to action.”

So, what is the proper first aid for a seizure victim? According to the Epilepsy Foundation of America, there are several basic steps emergency care givers should take. From their seizure first aid page:

  • Keep calm and reassure other people who may be nearby.
  • Don’t hold the person down or try to stop his movements.
  • Time the seizure with your watch.
  • Clear the area around the person of anything hard or sharp.
  • Loosen ties or anything around the neck that may make breathing difficult.
  • Put something flat and soft, like a folded jacket, under the head.
  • Turn him or her gently onto one side. This will help keep the airway clear.
  • Do not try to force the mouth open with any hard implement or with fingers. A person having a seizure CANNOT swallow his tongue. Efforts to hold the tongue down can injure teeth or jaw.
  • Don’t attempt artificial respiration except in the unlikely event that a person does not start breathing again after the seizure has stopped.
  • Stay with the person until the seizure ends naturally.
  • Be friendly and reassuring as consciousness returns.
  • Offer to call a taxi, friend or relative to help the person get home if he seems confused or unable to get home by himself.
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