What <i>Nurse Jackie</i> Means for America

No matter how broken the system is, no matter how many broken moments our individual lives might survive, we all have a chance to make real the basic human drive to heal. We can do that, whatever our position in life is.
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"Nurse Jackie" begins its fifth season Sunday night. I am honored to work with one of the the finest casts and crews in television, playing Gloria Akalitus, the officious hospital administrator as well as on-again, off-again nurse.

This is great work for any actor -- to be part of a wonderful ensemble cast led by the great Edie Falco, virtuoso writers who manage to animate several story lines in less than thirty minutes, producers who make it all possible, and a great crew. We have a lot of fun.

I also feel truly blessed that I'm a part of a project that is more than a great series; it is a revelation of a health care system that thousands of hours of shrill Congressional debates and abstract Supreme Court hearings could never convey. As actors and story tellers, we of course, seek to win hearts, not battles.

The reality of health care lurks outside our studio in Queens, New York, and informs some of what the writers create. The relentless money crunches. Corporate overlords coldly pulling strings on delicate medical and staffing decisions. Overcrowded waiting rooms and illogical triage. Communication vacuums between doctor and patient. The constant vulnerability of patients to not only disease, but to the system.

Like the health care jungle that imprisons her, Nurse Jackie Peyton is broken. Her addiction to prescription drugs, caused in part by work stress, creates near catastrophe in her relationships with family, lovers, friends and colleagues. Her brokenness is what speaks to audiences worldwide. There's a bit of humility throughout.

We still expect politicians and civic leaders to be perfect, but we in the arts know that what 18th century philosopher Immanuel Kant says still rings true today: "Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made."

Jackie is also a hero. She is the guardian angel, the consigliere and the wingman for the dozens of patients who roll by, wheel in, or face their last breath every day.

That is the story of "Nurse Jackie"; a champion of humanity in an inhumane system.

While creating a play about health care, "Let Me Down Easy", which as synchronicity would have it, I was able to perform while we filmed "Nurse Jackie" in New York, I interviewed over three hundred people on three continents.

Among them was Dr. Kiersta Kurtz Burke, a young idealistic physician who was on duty during Hurricane Katrina at the former Charity Hospital in New Orleans, one of the oldest hospitals for poor people in America. She talked about how the government and FEMA completely abandoned that hospital. After five days, they had still not been given help to evacuate.

Stuck with little food, 106 degrees and flooding that made it impossible to leave, the nurses were the ones who pulled through.

"Every, every nurse on our floor, they never stopped working, they worked for six days in that heat with no power, with flashlights. They never missed a vital sign. They never missed a urine output. They never missed a trick. And you know, there was this heavy sense of resignation."

Like teachers who get a bad rap in our broken education system -- as if they were the sole cause of a complex problem that has as much to do with profound social inequity as test scores -- nurses are on the front lines.

Even my character, the tough Gloria Akalitus, reveals her humanity at bedsides. As with Jackie, we find her holding the hands of the most vulnerable in her own. And at times, the writers gave Akalitus the chance to use her healing skills - developed first as a nurse then as a bureaucrat - to cut red tape in half when the system was just plain wrong.

This time last year, I had the opportunity to speak at a convention of nurses in a large group called National Nurses United. I was thrilled while there to receive the "Golden Bedpan Award" for my portrayal of Akalitus. For an evening I felt a part of that sister/brotherhood of nurses.

National Nurses United is nothing short of an activist organization, seeing healing as much more than what happens in a diagnosis, much more than what large machines and pharmaceuticals can do.

They see healing as part of a larger picture, a picture of patients caught in broken education, broken environment, broken relationships that they can't mend, broken streets and broken promises. I was very inspired by this group. Throughout the evening I thought about "Nurse Jackie."

The show is first a comedy. We want to entertain you. And yet, there are plenty of moments when the script asks our characters to pull it together, to sober it up, to rally around a patient, who has clearly been dealt more than one bad deck of life's cards. That's the call that "Nurse Jackie" is making.

No matter how broken the system is, no matter how many broken moments our individual lives might survive, we all have a chance to make real the basic human drive to heal. We can do that, whatever our position in life is. No matter how much we might think we are just short of the mark, we, like Jackie, can rise to the privilege to offer, when possible, that healing touch.

Tune in to the premiere of "Nurse Jackie" on Showtime Sunday at 9PM ET/PT and you will see great television. More important, you will see some of what's wrong with the American health care system. You will also see the possibility of making a difference, in how we treat each other one on one, day to day, in spite of our limitations - personal and societal.

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