White Coat Black Art

'This is not just a case, this is a person': Film hopes to prevent patients from falling through cracks

Greg Price, 31, fatally fell through the cracks of the health-care system. We explore how Greg's story became a film to teach med students, and why some of the best in Canada's TV industry helped bring the film to life.

A new film aimed at teaching med students was made with help from big names in Canadian TV

Kevin McGarry as Greg Price on the set of Falling Through the Cracks: Greg's Story, which details how the 31-year-old Alberta man fatally fell through the cracks of Alberta's health-care system. (Greg's Wings)

By Dr. Brian Goldman

When I went to medical school, I received my lessons the old-fashioned way: lectures from professors backed up by readings from dusty textbooks. Both emphasized the patient's symptoms and omitted telling details about their life and those of their loved ones. 

It was as if the unique facets of the lives of patients were irrelevant to the diagnosis and to our work as physicians. But there's a movement afoot to change that.

One of the methods uses narrative storytelling to humanize patients. In that vein, an extraordinary new Canadian film called Falling Through the Cracks: Greg's Story aims to teach medical students by reaching their hearts as well as their minds. 

The film focuses on Greg Price, a 31-year-old Alberta man, who died in 2012 of complications from surgery for testicular cancer. It clocks in at just under 30 minutes, but it packs an emotional wallop. 

It's unprecedented in that it uses Hollywood storytelling to educate med students. That makes it nothing like anything they, or I, have ever seen in a lecture hall before. The quality of the film reflects the professional talent that went into making it. 

Cast and crew members of Falling Through the Cracks with Greg Price's family. Left to right Kevin McGarry, who plays Greg Price, director Dean Bennett, Joanna Price, writer and producer Andrew Wreggitt and Teri Price. (Submitted by Andrew Wreggitt )

Kevin McGarry , who plays Mitch Cutty on the CBC-TV series Heartland, plays Greg. Behind the lens, there's an award-winning professional crew led by director Dean Bennett (also from Heartland) as well as writer and producer Andrew Wreggitt, a multi-award-winning writer whose credits range from the Beachcombers and North of 60 to Grapes:The Don Cherry Story and Flashpoint. 

What also makes this movie unusual is that it was commissioned and paid for by Greg Price's family.

The doctor noticed that there was a slight thickening on the epididymis of one of his testicles. He flagged that as something that should be watched.- Dave Price, Greg's father

The family is now on an ambitious schedule to screen Greg's story in front of medical students and the public across Canada.

We got an advance look because we featured Greg Price's story on White Coat, Black Art a couple of seasons ago. 

Greg's father Dave Price and I sat down in Calgary, where he told me the story of Greg's long and frustrating journey through Alberta's health-care system. The road began innocuously enough when Greg, an ambitious young engineer, needed a medical exam to renew his private pilot's license.

"The doctor noticed that there was a slight thickening on the epididymis of one of his testicles," David Price told me. "He flagged that as something that should be watched." 

The lump was still there when Greg went for his next checkup a year later, so the doctor referred him to a specialist. That began a tragic journey into a health-care maze. Referrals were requested by various doctors but were never carried out. 

Scans marked urgent were completed with no sense of urgency. There were several doctors who treated Greg but seemed to vanish afterwards.

Greg Price was 31-years-old when he died of a blood clot after being diagnosed with testicular cancer. (Price family)
Four hundred days would pass before the lump was diagnosed as testicular cancer. By then, the cancer had spread to Greg's pelvis and back. 

Greg had surgery on May 16, 2012. He died at his parents' home just three days later of a blood clot. It's a well-recognized surgical complication that went undiagnosed even though Greg told doctors he was concerned about that possibility. 

"My wife heard him go into the bathroom, and then go back into his room, get some medication, and then go back into the bathroom," Dave said. "And then we both heard him collapse on the floor."

Family wanted answers

From the moment Greg died, the family wanted to know how it happened and, more importantly, how to keep it from happening again. They found an ally in Dr. Ward Flemons, a professor of medicine at the University of Calgary.

On the film set of Falling Through the Cracks: Greg's Story (Submitted by Price family )
He led a study into Greg's death by the Health Quality Council of Alberta (HQCA). Released in December 2013, it exposed gaping cracks in Alberta's health-care system. 

The report found that Greg was referred to two different specialists, and that those specialist appointments didn't happen in a timely way. One of them took more than three months to get in touch with Greg. 

A follow-up report issued by HQCA found that access to CT scans and other diagnostic imaging has improved. But progress on other key recommendations in the original report — access to electronic health records and a way to track electronic referrals to specialists — has been slow

Still, for many families, those two reports and the public attention they garnered might have been enough. But the Price family is far from done.

They want to ensure Greg's story remains a powerful lesson for health-care workers. That's where the film comes in. 

Falling Through the Cracks was filmed over five days in Alberta. (Andrew Wreggitt )
 Dr. Ward Flemons turned out to be instrumental in getting the film made. 

"It was a chance meeting with a colleague in a hallway who heard that I was thinking of trying to get a film done," Flemons said.

That colleague put Flemons in touch with writer Andrew Wreggitt, who happened to be his running buddy.

Everyone felt a connection to Greg's story 

"When I heard the story, it resonated for me personally because of issues that had been going on in my wife's family and mine," Wreggitt said. 

At some point, we've almost all had a crack that we fell through.- Screenwriter Andrew Wreggitt on why he got involved in telling Greg's story

Wreggitt tapped Heartland director Dean Bennett and others to climb on board.  He says they shared a common bond.

"Everyone had their personal reason for wanting to be involved. All the way down the line ... You could be working on a Hollywood movie making a lot of money. Or, you could do this. And a lot of people chose to come and find the time."

Bennett spent his five-day hiatus from Heartland working on the film, and brought in Kevin McGarry to play Greg.

The Price family envisioned a series of educational modules. But Wreggitt  and the other filmmaking pros altered the mission of the film in a crucial way.

"I felt it was really important [that] med students and anyone who watches the film really have an understanding of who Greg was. That this is not just a case, this is a person who was loved by a lot of people — his family and his community," Wreggit said.

"When he died, that was a terrible loss. I wanted the audience to feel that loss."

Kevin McGarry, who stars on CBC-TV's Heartland, portrays Greg Price in Falling Through the Cracks: Greg's Story, a film designed to educate medical students. Greg died at age 31of a blood clot after surgery for testicular cancer. (Submitted by Andrew Wreggitt )
The film shows Greg meeting doctors and undergoing tests, but also horsing around with his nieces and nephews, playing baseball and making work plans. 

Wreggitt says despite being on a tight budget, the film looks anything but cheap. The University of Calgary allowed them to do a weekend shoot in the operating theatre at the medical school, scenes Wreggitt said would have cost a fortune if they'd used a private film facility.

Dr. Ward Flemons and director Dean Bennett on the set at the University of Calgary for Falling Through the Cracks:Greg's Story. (Submitted by the Price family )
"We got all of that for free from U of C so it allowed us on a micro-budget to get two days of high quality work inside a hospital," he said.

People in Greg's home town of Acme, Alberta, also supported the shoot by acting as extras in a scene shot at a local baseball diamond.

The village of Acme, Ont. where Greg Price lived, participated as extras in the filming of Falling Through the Cracks: Greg's story. Greg was an avid baseball player and coach and many of his teammates were on set. (Submitted by Andrew Wreggitt )
"All the baseball players you see on both teams were teammates of Greg's who were out there playing ball to help with the film, but also it was an a great reminder of Greg," Wreggitt recalled. 

"It was a moment for them to all get together again and play ball, and here's this actor out there in field being Greg. I think it was an emotional moment."

They also shot at the Price family home, including in the hallway where Greg collapsed. 

Teri Price, Greg's sister, said those days were difficult, but the positive feelings generated on the set helped her cope. 

"Watching the film now, I can sort of defer to the positive experience when I start to be impacted by the real-life negative one," she said. 

She said the family is pleased with the final product, and Wreggitt said the experience has turned him into somewhat of a health-care advocate, and a fan of the Price family.

He would have wanted someone to do something about what went wrong for him, so it doesn't happen to someone else.- Andrew Wreggitt

"They are such an amazing family. This was their drive that made this film happen," he said. 

"What they keep saying ... is this is what Greg would have wanted. He would have wanted someone to do something about what went wrong for him, so it doesn't happen to someone else." 

Teri says, in fact, the non-profit organization the family started, Greg's Wings, was set up "to provide life to what Greg might have done." 

Falling Through the Cracks has been added to the curriculum for first-year med students at the University of Calgary. Other medical schools across the country are interested in doing the same. 

On May 17, the film made its public premiere with a sold-out screening at the Plaza Theatre in Calgary.  Screenings are also planned in other parts of the country.

Film has had an impact

David Price is the father of Greg Price. (CBC)
I've spoken with Dave Price on three occasions. I never got the chance to meet Greg Price, but Falling Through the Cracks made him seem real to me — and those who have seen the film so far.

For some time now, White Coat, Black Art and I have been on a mission to empathize with patients and families by telling stories from their point of view. Falling Through the Cracks does that and more.

Dave Price once told me that many doctors treated Greg, but no one cared for him in those spaces between appointments and tests. 

The film made me care about Greg, and it has already done the same to a growing number of young doctors and other health professionals in training.
Greg Price was an active young man who enjoyed flying a plane, playing sports and spending time on the farm. (Price Family)