About two years ago, Michael Metzner, MD, took a break from his San Antonio surgical residency program for what was supposed to be a year-long gig in the bright lights of Hollywood. He hasn’t come back. He says he will … just not quite yet.
For now, Dr. Metzner will remain out west as an associate producer at the hit ABC-TV drama Grey’s Anatomy and as an adviser to the other medical TV shows he’s added to his portfolio.
“Someone very wise, a neurosurgeon, recently told me, ‘Success is where preparation meets opportunity,’” he said during a break at the November meeting of the American Medical Association House of Delegates, where he still serves as a delegate. “I’ve prepared my entire life to find ways to unite the arts and sciences and have different modalities of sharing that with the world. And then I got this one-in-a-million opportunity that I think just would be stupid to walk away from it at this point.”
Dr. Metzner was hired as Grey’s’ medical communication fellow after the second year of his general surgery residency at UT Health San Antonio Long School of Medicine. (See “Blending Both Worlds,” November 2018 Texas Medicine, page 48, www.texmed.org/BlendingBothWorlds.) He was part of a team responsible for ensuring medical verisimilitude in scripts and helping the actors understand everything from health care jargon to surgical procedures.
“Last season, one of our ‘doctors’ had done what’s called an elephant trunk procedure, where they did an aortic root replacement,” he explained. “So I consulted my different cardiothoracic friends, YouTube videos, and I myself did an aortic root replacement for like 6 hours on a cow heart in the back room, and did all the suturing and went through each of the processes myself. Then we used that heart for what we actually showed on TV.”
After Grey’s wrapped up filming its 15th season last spring, the producers asked him to come back for another season – and offered him a promotion. Dr. Metzner secured another year off from UT for his research sabbatical (“I’ve been very fortunate to have such supportive faculty and administrators,” he said), and arranged to spend another year in California.
It wasn’t just the hype and celebrities that kept Dr. Metzner in Hollywood. He gushes when he discusses the opportunity to get solid medical information to the show’s nearly 7 million viewers each week.
The 19th episode of Grey’s 15th season, “Silent All These Years,” told the story of a woman who was a victim of sexual assault and her treatment in the show’s Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital emergency department. Calls to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network hotline increased by 43% in the 48 hours after the show aired. JAMA Internal Medicine documented the connection in a Dec. 2, 2019, research letter.
“The biggest thing for me was to see that I could have an impact on medicine in a different way,” Dr. Metzner said. “Instead of treating one patient at a time, you get to educate millions of people at a time, and that, to me, was very inspiring.”
Shortly after another episode aired, Dr. Metzner received a text from one of his attendings in San Antonio. He hesitated to call back for fear that the surgeon would call him out for some error in a storyline about median arcuate ligament syndrome (MALS). Instead, the surgeon congratulated him, explaining that a patient with perplexing abdominal pain had watched that show, and it helped her and her physicians make the MALS diagnosis.
“What are the odds that someone’s going to watch this story and be diagnosed because of it? Then what are the odds that it’s within my program that someone is being treated?” Dr. Metzner wondered. “That’s a very powerful thing. To be able to have that kind of impact is just a very rare thing to be able to have in the medical field.”
Even more stages
The longer he works in the industry, the more Dr. Metzner finds he can parlay his medical knowledge and Hollywood connections into opportunities beyond Grey’s.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to work on a number of projects, some that I can talk about and some that I can’t,” he explained.
Among those he can talk about are HBO’s reboot of Perry Mason and producer Ryan Murphy’s upcoming Netflix series Ratched, based on the early life of the tyrannical nurse from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The first is set in the 1930s; the second in the ’40s. Dr. Metzner is a medical adviser to both.
“This is what this job comes down to: I have to research things that never in a million years would I be researching,” he said. “I learned so many different types of medicine, medicine in different time periods. You just kind of expand your mind in ways that you never think possible.”
Early in his education, Dr. Metzner plotted a long training path toward becoming a pediatric cranial-facial plastic surgeon, which he still considers “the coolest surgery in the entire world,” he said. “But I’ve come to accept that life sometimes just presents opportunities that you can’t see. … I didn’t know that this job existed. It’s really opened my eyes.”
Dr. Metzner says he began watching Grey’s Anatomy when he was a teenager, sitting around the family TV with his mother. It was part of his inspiration to become a physician – and to find a way to fuse a career out of art and medicine.
Now he finds himself side-by-side every day with Ellen Pompeo, who stars as Dr. Meredith Grey. He’s also been on set with another television physician he once idolized: Jennifer Morrison, who played Dr. Allison Cameron in House.
“There are two physicians on TV that I always looked up to,” Dr. Metzner said. “I’ve now worked with both of them since I’ve been in Hollywood to show them how it is to be a doctor. I think that’s such a crazy 360. It shows you life has its own path, and you have to follow it.”
Tex Med. 2020;116(2):4-5
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