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Last Updated: Monday, 8 May 2006, 23:11 GMT 00:11 UK
Comas 'not realistic in movies'
Glenn Close
Glenn Close praised for her role in Reversal of Fortune
Motion pictures are guilty of "grossly misrepresenting" the comatose state, says a leading US neurologist.

Dr Eelco Wijdicks found only two films - Reversal of Fortune (1990) and the Dreamlife of Angels (1998) - which accurately portrayed the condition.

The rest, which included both Hollywood and international films, he dismissed as presenting "enormous caricature".

Writing in Neurology, he warned inaccurate depictions could influence viewers' real-life view on coma.

The study found inaccuracies both in representing the comatose state, and "awakenings" from it.

The public sees an unrealistic portrayal of a neurologic disease that could lead to improbable expectations from a family of a patient in a coma
Dr Eelco Wijdicks

Dr Wijdicks, based at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, and his son, Coen Wijdicks, currently a graduate student at Rush University, reviewed 30 movies released from 1970 to 2004 with actors depicting prolonged coma.

They evaluated accuracy based on appearance of the patient, complexity of care, accurate cause of coma, probability of awakening, and discussion between doctors and family members.

The researchers then showed 22 scenes from 17 movies to a panel of experts in coma care, and to a separate group of non-medical viewers.

Dr Wijdicks commended Reversal of Fortune and The Dreamlife of Angels for portraying well the agony of waiting for a comatose patient to awaken and accurately depicting the patient and the complexity of care.

However, he said the other 28 movies were seriously lacking.

For example, they often showed miraculous awakenings - often within seconds and as if from a terrible nightmare - with no long-lasting effects at all.

Other flaws included:

  • A lack of feeding tubes

  • Unrealistic muscle contractions

  • No sign of a tracheotomy to help breathing

  • 'Comatose' patients remaining muscular, tanned and well groomed

Dr Wijdicks said such inaccuracies trivialised prolonged coma, and suggested it was simply a "Sleeping Beauty" type state of sleep.

He also found that, in the majority of films, doctors caring for comatose patients were poorly represented as cavalier, sarcastic, detached or uncompassionate.

Dr Wijdicks acknowledged that as art, movies are not limited to textbook portrayal of events - but he said it was important that film-makers were at least aware of the issues.

"We're not here to criticise screenwriters or an art form, but we want them to appreciate the serious situation of those in a coma and to be sensitive to how they might be leading viewers astray."

Real life implications

Dr Wijdicks also found that many lay viewers were unable to identify inaccuracy in the depiction of coma - despite 39% admitting that those depictions might influence their decisions about a coma in real life.

He said: "Inaccuracy concerns me because the public sees an unrealistic portrayal of a neurologic disease that could lead to improbable expectations from a family of a patient in a coma; for example, that it will be just a matter of time till the patient awakens and everything will be fine and dandy."

Dr Carl Waldmann, an intensive care specialist at the Royal Berkshire Hospital, Reading, said the study was very welcome.

"The problem with intensive care medicine is that it does not have much of a public profile - some people don't really know what it means," he said.

"People just don't wake up from a coma and start talking, they wake up slowly, and may suffer from problems such as weakness and disorientation.

"It is important that coma victims are portrayed accurately in the media, as it will help people have much more realistic expectations should they ever be faced with that situation."

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