Arts·Point of View

As a chronically ill person, I wish my life could be more like Scrubs

In the medical dramedy, which premiered 20 years ago, someone always comes to the rescue.

In the medical dramedy, which premiered 20 years ago, someone always comes to the rescue

Zach Braff as John Dorian in Scrubs. (Disney)

20 years ago, the doors of Sacred Heart Hospital opened for the first time. When Scrubs premiered on October 2, 2001, it introduced audiences to a flawed-but-lovable group of goofballs dedicated to figuring out medical mysteries — and themselves.

I've been watching Scrubs for most of those two decades and have seen every episode of the first six seasons at least 50 times. In high school, I would borrow a friend's DVDs one at a time and watch that season on a loop until I decided I was ready to move on to the next one. The show's precise blend of comedy and drama, balancing boundless silliness with more serious and moving emotional moments, was one of the most dependable sources of comfort I could count on during those years.

When I found out my partner had never seen the show, I nearly tripped over a gurney (a recurring slapstick gag) in my rush to introduce her to it. Not everything about it has aged perfectly, but it still holds a special place in my heart. But as we started watching together, I began to feel something I never had during any of my countless previous viewings over the years: jealousy.

You see, I'm sick. Not the kind of sudden, emergency sickness that will land you in a hospital like Sacred Heart, but a dull, endless labyrinth of aches and pains that never go away. I've described it to people as feeling like a constant hangover — some days you're trapped in bed for hours completely unable to function, other days everything just feels dizzy, but you're never, ever well. Another term for this is chronic illness.

John C. McGinley as Perry Cox and Sarah Chalke as Elliot Reid in Scrubs. (Disney)

Chronically ill people might have concrete diagnoses for their ailments, or they may live with symptoms for which their doctors have yet to find a clear explanation. Either way, the common thread is that the conditions are long-term, require ongoing maintenance, and limit daily life.

This is something that healthy people usually don't really know how to react to. There's no "get well soon" card for your entire state of being. Friends might be sympathetic but not understand why there are so many limits on what you have the capacity to do. Doctors become visibly impatient the more your symptoms evade diagnosis. If no one can figure this out, how bad could it really be? All the while you feel weaker and weaker, the weight of being sick blurring with the pressure of being expected to live a functional life.

In Scrubs, when a patient presents with a bizarre intersection of symptoms that don't have a clear explanation, it becomes a hospital-wide mystery. The doctors work to track down the diagnosis no matter how many tests it takes or how obscure the condition may be — familial Mediterranean fever, Zollinger-Ellison Syndrome, Waldenström's macroglobulinemia. Not everyone ends up getting better in the end, but there's usually at least an answer.

In real life, there are often no answers. Chronically ill patients might struggle with increasingly severe symptoms for years as one perplexed doctor after another tells them no one is able to find an explanation for what's wrong. Eventually every conversation ends in the same place: "I'm not sure what more we can do for you."

Left to right: Zach Braff as John Dorian, Sarah Chalke as Elliot Reid, Judy Reyes as Carla Espinosa, and Donald Faison as Christopher Turk in Scrubs. (Disney)

Most of the practitioners I've seen have been nice people who seem to want to help, and I'm even lucky enough to have a few people on my team who are genuinely invested in my wellbeing. But there's only so much someone can do with few answers. Test results usually come back showing that "everything's normal" — the worst thing a chronically ill patient can hear. Doctors will suggest that you try reducing stress, which is a very funny thing to say to someone experiencing increasingly severe and inexplicable health problems. I hear the Scrubs theme song playing on my TV: I can't do this all on my own. I know.

These situations come up on the show, too — patients whose chronic pain has no known cause or whose heart problems are chalked up merely to stress. But someone always comes to the rescue. I found myself rewatching with a lump forming in my throat, wishing someone would come to my rescue.

Donald Faison as Christopher Turk and Zach Braff as John Dorian in Scrubs. (Disney)

After spending so many years of my life watching the staff of Sacred Heart rally together to crack even the toughest of cases, it stings to know that no one is going to figure this out for me by the end of the episode. JD and Elliot aren't burrowed in textbooks right now, digging deep for the explanation behind my pain; Dr. Cox won't ride in to save the day with a brilliant diagnosis that only he could have thought of. At least I know that no matter how weak I might feel on my bad days, there's something I can watch that will put a smile on my face.


Eleanor Knowles is a digital associate producer at CBC Arts who loves music, editing, and Oxford commas. She runs the monthly logo project, which sees a different artist put their own spin on the CBC Arts logo each month.

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