Medical documentaries are fascinating, informative and wide-reaching, but often toe a fine line between removing taboos around common conditions and reinforcing them. Programmes like ‘Embarrassing Bodies’ tread this line very carefully, encouraging public discussion around a wide variety of conditions and the removal of any associated embarrassment. There is no denying that increased awareness is a great thing and can only improve public health in general, but there is a danger of insensitively exhibiting patients to capitalise on natural viewer curiosity and provoke repulsion to keep viewing figures high.
Being unwell is a stressful time for anybody and handling medical cases with care and delicacy should always take priority over providing entertainment, even if they waive their right to anonymity by agreeing to take part in such documentaries. Talking about medical conditions, from those that are extremely common to even those that are incredibly rare, is a vital tool in removing any existing social stigmas. But explaining the science behind why people are the way they are goes that one step further in helping us to all understand these conditions and is something that the recent BBC documentary series ‘Incredible Medicine: Dr Weston’s Casebook’ does very well.
The premise of the programme is not just to tell the story of some of the most extraordinary people in the world and the medical conditions they have to live with or have overcome against incredible odds, but also how their courage has led to amazing and pioneering medical research. One such case was that of American college student Ian who suffered a broken neck in a freak accident on holiday, rendering him a quadriplegic: with very limited movement of his limbs, and requiring 24/7 care just to go about his daily routine. But in 2014, he took the brave decision to take part in a completely novel procedure, involving both medics and electronic engineers, to bypass the injury to his spinal cord and reconnect his brain to the neural system controlling limb movement. Extraordinarily, there are signs that the treatment is working and he is slowly retraining his brain to move his hands and fingers again, something that a few years ago would never have been thought possible.
In the second episode, we meet Jill who officially holds the record for the loudest scream. Going far beyond the pages of Guinness World Record books that she graces, the programme tried to explain how she screams so loudly compared to the average human being. Jill visited Royal Holloway and met our very own Professor David Howard, who is the head of the new Electronic Engineering department and an expert in the human voice. His research indicated that Jill is able to produce a scream 29dba louder than the average human being because of the high efficiency of her lungs and larger vocal folds than somebody else of her sex. The forcing of air out of the lungs and crashing together of our vocal folds in the throat is what creates the volume of the noise we make, and Jill happens to be adapted to scream louder than most.
Having the loudest scream may not be something as serious or visible as other conditions discussed in the series but is nevertheless another example of how the programme goes beyond just talking about extraordinary people but the science explaining their conditions or capabilities. Not one person is depicted without care or consideration of the difficulties they have faced not only due to the nature of their conditions but the ignorance of people around them, and the greatest emphasis of all is placed on the benefits of understanding why people are who they are. From a medical perspective, understanding abnormal human functions can shed light on new treatments and surgeries for people with many other illnesses. The amazing Veljano, a free diver in Croatia, can hold his breath for 9 minutes, and understanding how he can do this is offering scientists new hope for preventing brain damage in heart attack patients.
But perhaps most importantly of all is that understanding what makes these people tick often shows how very little separates them from people without the conditions, sometimes just one altered gene in their genome. Celebrating these extraordinary people and what makes them just that not only removes the taboos around their conditions but highlights how they are helping scientists to further understand the human body, something that can only ever benefit us all.
‘Incredible Medicine: Dr Weston’s Casebook’ continues Wednesdays at 9pm on BBC Two or catch up on BBC iPlayer