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Behind The Scenes Of 'Emergency Room: Life And Death At VGH'

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Our earliest production meetings of a behind-the-scenes documentary series about life in an emergency room were spent answering questions like:

  • How exactly are we going to shoot this?
  • How will we decide what cases we should follow?
  • How graphic is it going to be?

Near the end of every meeting after we had laid out all the technical requirements, made a schedule of which doctors we hoped to follow, and prepared ourselves for our best and worst case scenarios, someone would always ask: "Is this really going to work?"

Tonight's episode (Tuesday, Feb. 4) of "Emergency Room: Life and Death at VGH" is titled "Full Moon" and it is full of unusual cases and challenges faced by the emergency department staff at Vancouver General Hospital (VGH). It includes one of the most emotional stories of the series where Dr. Campbell is faced with a doctor's most difficult decision: whether to continue or cease efforts to resuscitate a dying patient.

For all of us involved, the making of "Emergency Room: Life and Death at VGH" has been one of the most challenging projects we have ever worked on. Lark Productions started the process 2.5 years ago by submitting a creative pitch to British Columbia's Knowledge Network on how we would produce a documentary series filmed inside a hospital ER. The public broadcaster, together with Lark Productions, wanted to tell the stories of the emergency room staff working the front lines in an urban Vancouver hospital.

Once we'd been selected by Knowledge Network, Lark began the lengthy process of creative development, research and negotiations. We spent many months in discussions with Vancouver Coastal Health about how this production would be possible in an emergency department.

The team that came together to work through the various challenges and form a plan and protocol for the production were fantastic. We knew this project was ambitious but everyone could see the benefit to sharing the stories of the staff and patients with an audience.

As we moved into preliminary research on the floor at VGH, it was key to start meeting with staff and understanding how the department ran. We got to see firsthand how patients came into the emergency department and the various levels of cases and trauma. We learned an entirely new glossary of medical terms and acronyms.

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The VGH staff were very accommodating in sharing their knowledge and expertise with us in between their work with patients. So much of this project hinged on communication and this valuable time before the cameras started rolling gave us so much insight about how things worked in the hospital. It would prove even more valuable in understanding how to embed a film crew in this high pressure and very dynamic environment.

Crew selection was a very important part of our process on this series. We brought together a team of professionals that had worked with Lark before and had the right temperament and experience for the shoot.

We knew that in order to be successful, we'd need a team that could work well in challenging situations and be sensitive to the staff and patients. They also needed to understand and respect the various systems, departments and protocols of the emergency department staff, whose willingness to work with us was an essential part of our success. Over time, the crew "became part of the scenery" at VGH and communication was quick, efficient and unobtrusive.

Tonight's episode, in particular, showed us that there wasn't just one answer to the question that haunted us during those early production meetings. By being invited inside the emergency department, we were privileged to be present for some of the most difficult moments staff, patients and their families face. By sharing their stories, we have hopefully created a profound (and occasionally heart-breaking) connection with our community.

We are so grateful to the patients and families that agreed to film with the crew and share their stories with us.

Our relationship with the hospital didn't end with filming. As we worked through the months of story editing and post production, we were a constant presence in the hospital reaching out to staff for names, clearances and information about process, terminology and medical details.

We also produced a companion website for Emergency Room: Life and Death at VGH with Knowledge Network and the digital agency Pound & Grain. Visit http://er.knowledge.ca/ to watch episodes, upload your own emergency room stories and join the discussion around important health care issues facing Canadians like dying with dignity, medical care for the homeless and organ donation.

"Emergency Room: Life and Death at VGH" is broadcast on British Columbia's Knowledge Network Tuesdays at 9pm PT. Episodes are simulcast on the series' interactive companion website at www.knowledge.ca/er.