Medical dramas have often proved a hit for television networks. However, when it comes to portrayals of nurses, not every program seems to consider authenticity and responsibility on an equal footing with the requirement for drama or entertainment. A positive yet realistic depiction of nurses on TV is something that professionals want to highlight, and the Truth About Nursing website has provided annual lists of the best and worst media representations of nurses from around the world. Still, television has produced some incredible nursing role models – characters who have gone down in the medium’s history. Read on for ten TV nurses whom we’d love to work with.
10. Julia Baker – Julia
The sitcom Julia ran on NBC from 1968 to 1971, and its title role, fulfilled by Diahann Carroll, was one of the first female African American characters to be represented outside of stereotypical limitations on American television. The show revolved around widowed single mother and nurse Julia Baker, and it is now considered groundbreaking – even if at the time reviewers were often less than enthusiastic, labeling it unrealistic and apolitical. While Carroll thought that Julia was often light in dealing with the issues at hand, she was captivated by the character herself and is said to have identified with her from “the inside and out.” In 1969 the show earned Carroll an Emmy nomination, not to mention a Julia Barbie doll.
9. Rory Williams – Doctor Who
Rory Williams, played by Arthur Darvill, first appeared in series five of the world’s longest-running sci-fi series, Doctor Who. He is first the boyfriend, and later the husband, of The Doctor’s companion Amy Pond, played by Karen Gillan. Rory is a nurse, but he soon makes his way into the TARDIS to be a “companion” himself. In fact, it is in his hospital that Matt Smith’s eleventh Doctor vanquished his first foe in 2010. While he’s traveling with The Doctor, Rory’s medical knowledge often comes into play. It was also revealed in a 2012 episode that, ever the professional, Rory carries supplies with him just in case anyone gets injured, and this perhaps shows a little of his caring and compassionate side. We reckon that he’d be the perfect colleague – and that the TARDIS’ time-traveling capabilities could help fellow nurses treat even more patients.
8. Peter Petrelli – Heroes
Peter Petrelli, played by Milo Ventimiglia, is one of the main characters in superhero drama Heroes, which ran on NBC from 2006 to 2010. His special power is “empathic mimicry”– the ability to copy or even soak up the powers of other superheroes; a more benign version of that held by series villain Sylar. In contrast to his politician brother, Nathan, Peter chooses a career in nursing and later becomes a paramedic. His compassion is a defining part of his makeup; Tim Kring, the series’ creator, has said that the character’s superpower is “based on his empathy and his ability to connect with people.”
7. Veronica Flanagan Callahan – Mercy
Short-lived NBC series Mercy may have only run from 2009 to 2010, but it certainly pushed nursing to the fore. It focuses on three nurses working at the fictional Mercy Hospital in New Jersey, one of whom is Veronica Flanagan Callahan, played by Taylor Schilling. Callahan, who has recently returned from service in Iraq, is extremely competent but has to contend with P.T.S.D. and seriously naive colleagues along the way. Schilling was said to have blown the show’s producers away with her audition for the role. However, the series itself had little time to get started and suffered from comparisons to Showtime’s Nurse Jackie. Still, U.K. newspaper The Daily Telegraph was complimentary about the show, praising the “real-person dialogue, excellent writing, a fresh storyline and thoughtful acting.”
6. Dixie McCall – Emergency!
Action-adventure and medical drama series Emergency! ran on NBC from 1972 to 1977 and was a spin-off derived from Adam-12, a cop show that had itself issued from Dragnet. In it, Dixie McCall, portrayed by Julie London, is the head nurse of Rampart General Hospital’s emergency room and also a former Korean War army nurse. She takes part in the hospital’s paramedic program and from the outset acts as a mother figure to those under her charge. Nurse McCall demonstrates efficiency, determination and tenacity and is well liked by her co-workers. However, London herself admitted that she was not nearly as knowledgeable as her televisual counterpart, adding, “I guess if I had to, though, I could take your blood pressure.”
5. Christina Hawthorne – Hawthorne
Christina Hawthorne is the eponymous central character in Hawthorne, which ran for three seasons between 2009 and 2011 on TNT. Jada Pinkett Smith took the lead role of Hawthorne, a chief nursing officer at Richmond Trinity Hospital in Virginia, and the show’s 30 episodes displayed the drama affecting her personal and professional life. While the nurse sometimes faced challenges in her relationship with Dr. Tom Wakefield, the chief of surgery, she still demonstrated her passion for her job – and her willingness to risk it to defend her patients and staff. In 2011 Truth About Nursing noted the show’s representation of nursing authority and skill.
4. Samantha Taggart – ER
ER is one of the most successful medical shows ever seen on the small screen, having run for an amazing 15 seasons. Emergency nurse Samantha Taggart, played by Linda Cardellini, starred in the last six seasons and established herself as more than capable in her work from the start. In one key scene, she managed to efficiently inject an out-of-control patient with a sedative, impressing her colleagues enormously. However, her compelling character is rooted in a difficult personal life. A single mother who gave birth to her son, Alex, at the age of 15, she successfully established herself despite her roots in a line of underachievers and alcoholics. And as she battled through her five years in the emergency room, she also had to contend with Alex’s diabetes.
3. Jackie Peyton – Nurse Jackie
Premiering on Showtime, The Movie Network and Movie Central in 2009, Nurse Jackie has gone on to amass multiple Primetime Emmy and Golden Globe nominations. Edie Falco stars in the title role of Jackie Peyton, a tough emergency department nurse, but one who occasionally lapses into substance abuse as she struggles to cope with both her personal and professional lives. The show has been well received both inside and outside of the nursing profession. In fact, Truth About Nursing has marked out Nurse Jackie as featuring one of the best portrayals of nurses in the media from 2000 to 2009, remarking that Jackie herself uses her medical skills in order to find “new and effective ways to help patients lead better lives or find lasting peace.”
2. Helen Rosenthal – St. Elsewhere
Boston-set medical drama St. Elsewhere ran for six seasons on NBC in the 1980s. The show was notable for its combination of immersive drama and elements of black comedy, and it gained a strong following, also winning 13 Emmy Awards during its run. One of its main characters was head nurse Helen Rosenthal, played by British actress Christina Pickles. The highly proficient and caring nurse managed to keep everything operating efficiently on her ward, in spite of shortages of personnel, computer malfunctions and a general lack of order. In the show’s first season, Rosenthal was at the heart of one of the earliest dramatic television breast cancer plotlines, and she proceeded to battle both nursing rivals and a prescription drug addiction. Throughout the show’s lifespan, Pickles earned four Emmy nominations for her portrayal of the character.
1. Carla Espinosa – Scrubs
Scrubs ran for a remarkable nine seasons between 2001 and 2010, first on NBC and then on ABC. It followed the lives of staff at the Sacred Heart teaching hospital, but it’s Judy Reyes’ outspoken Carla Espinosa who is arguably one of the most memorable characters. Throughout the series, viewers saw the head nurse’s relationship with surgeon Christopher Turk lead to marriage and children. Espinosa is a spunky, no-nonsense individual who isn’t afraid to challenge doctors when needed, and she even has a connection with Dr. Cox, who terrorizes most of the other staff. While the show’s focus was often on comedy, this had no effect on Reyes’ drive for authenticity, as the actress took inspiration, technical knowledge and personality for the part from her real-life-nurse sister, who later told her, “You stole my character!”