'This is not just a case, this is a person': Film hopes to prevent patients from falling through cracks
A new film aimed at teaching med students was made with help from big names in Canadian TV
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.
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.
- WHITE COAT, BLACK ART: Falling through the cracks
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 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.
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.
"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."
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.
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.
"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
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.