How Carol Hathaway of 'ER' Redefined the TV Nurse

NursingMay 16, 2014

Up until Nurse Carol Hathaway made her debut on "ER," most TV nurses, with a few notable exceptions, were portrayed as saintly characters who simply waited on doctors. But Hathaway, played by actress Julianna Margulies, brought new complexity to how we view nurses on TV.

Showing Her Vulnerable Side

From the beginning of the pilot episode, it became clear that Hathaway was an incredibly vulnerable character. Her character was first introduced while she was being rolled into the ER as a patient after a suicide attempt. And because of her profession, she was someone who knew how to do it right — with a complex combination of medications — and it took more than a shot of Narcan to bring her back.

Showing a nurse attempting suicide was something new to fictional nurses. But on the good side, the contrast of showing Hathaway at her lowest point, then showing her return, proved her incredible strength and ability to recover.

Not Chasing the Doctors

Fictional nurses also tend to chase after doctors, and while it's true that "ER" hinted Hathaway's suicide attempt was related to her failing relationship with Dr. Doug Ross (George Clooney), when she came back to work, things had definitely changed. Despite Dr. Ross's best efforts — and we're talking George Clooney here, folks — Hathaway wasn't having any of his attempts to get back together.

Sure, she eventually ended up with Dr. Ross, but she made him work for it. Not only did Hathaway refuse to chase after doctors, she considered becoming one, taking the MCAT exam for med school just to prove to herself she was good enough. She got a perfect score, passing in the 85th percentile. And that was good enough for her.

To Err Is Human

While Hathaway may have proven that she could be a doctor, that doesn't mean she never made a mistake. And when she did, she did it in a big way. After moving into a nursing management role, Hathaway found herself trying to cover for shortages during a nurse "sickout" protest. In the chaos, she transfused the wrong blood into a patient, and even though it wasn't certain whether it was the transfusion error that caused his death or his injuries, Hathaway blamed herself.

It's not a pretty aspect of nursing, but it is a reality — a "simple" mistake can cause a patient's death. And when the hospital administration went easy on her and used the incident to paint the nurses who participated in the sickout as the villains, Hathaway stepped up to defend them and ended up suspended.

In her role as nurse supervisor of the ER, Hathaway introduced the audience to real issues affecting nurses in the workplace as far as staffing and the common practice of "floating" nurses to other units in the hospital. She also voiced concern about the effects of insurance company policies on patient care.

In other words, Carol Hathaway may have been a fictional character, but she brought a healthy dose of reality to TV nurses and gave us a realistic view of the life of a nurse.

Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons