Hollywood finds use for Hamilton hospitals' trove of vintage medical gear

A small team at Hamilton Health Sciences rents out medical equipment no longer needed to set designers working on massive television and film productions.

'It offsets the budget from the hospital,' rental coordinator says. 'Anything to help.'

Moffatt shows a kit he's assembled that contains the equipment needed to perform a C-section. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)

A set designer needed a needle.

That simple request last year has turned a corner of the Juravinski hospital on the Mountain into a movie set prop emporium full of obsolete hospital medical equipment for rent.

It started when a film company was shooting a scene with a drug addict. They needed a syringe. So they called up a Hamilton hospital to see if they could borrow one.

The request made it to the small team that manages patient equipment at Hamilton Health Sciences hospitals.

A year and a half later, the team whisks prop rental reps and set designers in and out, renting them patient beds, heart rate monitors, medical supplies, old pill bottles and linens.

Jay Moffatt, rental coordinator for Hamilton Health Sciences' medical movie prop operation, rummages through a drawer of medical equipment available for rent. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)

'We can't give it away; we can't sell it'

The job falls to a couple of patient equipment managers, Jay Moffatt and Stewart McNeil, who manage the operation on the side when they're not dealing with other hospital equipment business. 

There are rules governing the disposal of medical equipment owned by public hospitals. And even items that are disposable come with a cost to turf.

See the vintage medical gear a Hamilton hospital rents to movie/TV sets 0:34

"We can't give it away; we can't sell it," Moffatt said. "So we basically rent it to movie sets, and try and gain some revenue from that."

They've rented equipment for use on more than a half-dozen shows, like Taken, Designated Survivor, and The Kennedys: After Camelot. Some of their clients are top secret.

The team has the gear to make a room appear like an authentic hospital room, down to the switch boxes on the wall. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)

Their boss, Michael Capuano, is the manager of biomedical technology for HHS, and he has encouraged Moffatt and McNeil to grow this movie rental side hustle into a way to offset hospital budget pressures.

"We're over-capacity. It's no secret," Capuano said. "It helps our bottom line, helps us reduce our budget."

Plus, it's kind of fun to watch TV and point out to your friends the piece of equipment you helped provide, they said.

'If it looks good, and it's garbage, we take it'

Capuano declined to disclose how much money the team has brought in from renting out hospital equipment. But Moffatt set a goal this year of earning $1,000 a week on rentals. Their biggest single-week rental has brought in $10,000 to the hospital.

And the clients say they like having the money they're spending going to help patients in a hospital, Moffatt said.

Hamilton Health Sciences' medical movie props team Stewart McNeil, left, Jay Moffatt, centre, and Michael Capuano demonstrate a syringe pump they rigged up for a television shoot. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)

There is a line they won't cross. "I'm not going to take a bed from a patient," Moffatt said.

But sometimes they trawl the hallways, looking for usable goods that are one department's junk, and their treasure.

"If it looks good, and it's garbage, we take it," McNeil said.

They get mostly word-of-mouth calls – "we need crutches," "we need a bed."

Recently, a client was looking for a bunch of pill bottles. The team called the pharmacy, but no one called them back. Soon an eagle-eyed janitor helped snag a box of bottles headed for the trash.

A vintage scale called the "Gram-amatic Balance" by Fisher Scientific Company. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)

They rented out the box of bottles for $500 to the client who asked for it. And then, another client noticed it and rented it again.

'Resuscitation equipment to keep people alive on the set'

When a set designer or prop manager calls, the team tours them through several rooms full of equipment. There are linens from every decade, old telephones, and machinery from bygone eras.

Everything in this staged patient room can be rented, from the monitoring and resuscitation equipment, to the ventilator, defibrillator, ultrasound machine, tourniquet and syringe pump. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)

"Everything you need to simulate a surgery situation," Capuano says, spinning around an improvised storage room made to look like a patient room, filled with equipment from decades gone by.

"We have various types of monitoring and resuscitation equipment to keep people alive on the set: infusion pumps, patient monitoring – that monitors ECG pressure," he says, gesturing to one of the gizmos.

He's not finished.

"SpO2 and so forth, non-invasive blood pressure, an old ventilator, defibrillator, ultrasound machine, tourniquet, here's a syringe pump we used for certain scenes."

The team hopes to keep building their operation next year.

"It offsets the budget from the hospital," Moffatt said. "Anything to help."

kelly.bennett@cbc.ca

About the Author

Kelly Bennett

Reporter, CBC Hamilton

Kelly Bennett is an award-winning reporter who lives in Hamilton. She grew up in Victoria and covered economics and arts as an investigative reporter in San Diego. She loves digging into great stories, hiking and playing the violin. Drop her a line anytime at kelly.bennett@cbc.ca.