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Stunning critique - an incredibly dynamic depiction of a doctor's life during the Covid-19 pandemic.
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-19 Stunning critique – an incredibly dynamic depiction of a doctor’s life during the Covid-19 pandemic.

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How can one create a compelling play inspired by true events when many of those occurrences are incredibly implausible? This is particularly challenging as the truth behind these events has become more widely known and, in some cases, even documented in official investigations.

Breathtaking is a television show divided into three parts that is based on a book written by palliative care doctor Rachel Clarke. The show is titled the same as the book and has been adapted by both Clarke and Jed Mercurio, creator of popular shows Bodies and Line of Duty, along with actor Prasanna Puwanarajah, who was also a doctor in the past. The show follows the events of the first six months of the coronavirus pandemic in the UK, specifically focusing on one hospital and a small group of frontline staff. The story is seen through the perspective of consultant Abbey Henderson (played by Joanne Froggatt) and her team, who are facing overwhelming and unprecedented events that were not planned for.

The errors start early on, starting with Abbey’s fitting for the necessary protective gear that would soon become scarce as the first wave of cases entered. The FFP3 masks were too large for her narrow jaw. “So only men can be saved, then?” Abby says with resignation. They have already depleted their supply of powered air respirators, but she can purchase one on Amazon for around £300.

During this time, the difficult decisions, pressures, duties, shocking events, and neglect of governmental and managerial responsibilities are faced (later on, failures in journalism may also be added as some newspapers eagerly spread the message from authority that doctors are intentionally limiting care and not attempting to save every patient). Directives to increase the number of ventilated beds by three times, the beeping noise of low hospital oxygen supplies, stricter regulations on who receives personal protective equipment and what type, with domestic and care staff initially using bin-bag aprons, masks being donated by veterinarians and builders, a shipment of visors made by local school students, the shortage of tests, and the lack of a mandate for testing. And this is only within the first hour.

This provides a clear understanding of the confusion and disorder during that time, and how employees were struggling to provide any form of care. This is in addition to the intertwined footage highlighting the chaos – Rishi Sunak suggesting that we should all “eat out to help out”, while the ward becomes crowded with patients coughing and gasping, Boris Johnson bragging about shaking hands with Covid patients during a public relations visit amidst a worldwide pandemic, and ministers claiming that there is an abundance of PPE despite possible delays in distributing it equally.

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The list of shameful failures and demonstrations of consequences does not leave much time for anything other than simple outrage. Perhaps that was the intention, and it seems to be enough. However, as the remaining episodes unfold, there is a slight sense of detachment and formulaic storytelling. We see the beloved care worker, dressed in a bin bag apron, succumbing to illness despite the sorrow of her colleagues at her bedside. We also see a stubborn visitor refusing to wear a mask and a doctor’s mother who believes in Facebook conspiracy theories instead of trusting her own son. Additionally, we witness a patient’s death because the ambulance crew did not have proper PPE and were not allowed to perform resuscitation under the new guidelines. A young doctor is worn down by her experiences and may leave the medical field as a result. And finally, doctors debate over which patients are most likely to survive treatments that cannot be provided for all. In one instance, rules are even bent to allow a dying mother to have a final visit from her children, who are dressed as unicorns in party dresses.

You can do more with much less, as Jack Thorne’s 2021 Help, set in a care home with Jodie Comer as the last carer standing, proved. By the end, despite great performances from the whole cast, Breathtaking feels more like a cathartic rush for the writers, rather than something that deepens our understanding of what doctors and patients – and to some extent what we all – went through.

Source: theguardian.com