For decades, TV medical dramas have showcased doctors as heroes while relegating nurses to supporting or background roles. But now the spotlight is finally moving to nurses. And for the first time ever, a dramatic series is featuring an African American nurse as the title character.

TNT’s new show “HawthoRNe” stars Jada Pinkett Smith as Christina Hawthorne, a hospital chief nursing officer. Pinkett Smith, who is also one of the show’s executive producers, has a heartfelt connection to the project: her mom, Adrienne Banfield-Jones, BSN, RN, is a nurse in real life.

“Nursing is an amazing profession,” Pinkett Smith says. “I think that seeing the life of a hospital through the nurse’s eyes will be very, very interesting,”

The one-hour show, which TNT describes as “a character-driven medical drama told from the nurses’ point of view,” premiered on June 16. It airs on Tuesdays at 9 p.m. (Eastern and Pacific time) and will run for 10 episodes. Pinkett Smith’s character is a headstrong CNO who fights for her patients and leads a team of dedicated nurses. The show explores the dynamics of hospital politics, portraying nurses as leaders, and delves into the challenges of balancing personal and professional lives. Recently widowed after her husband dies of cancer, Christina Hawthorne struggles with her own grief and with raising a rebellious teenage daughter as a single parent.

“One of the things I love about this character is that her strength is rooted in compassion,” Pinkett Smith declares.

Because “HawthoRNe” focuses on nurses, rather than doctors, the episodes explore patients’ emotional as well as physical challenges and the great lengths to which nurses go to address those issues.

“[On this show] we really are dealing more with how people are being affected by their ailment, versus focusing on the ailment itself,” Pinkett Smith explains. “What we’re trying to do is show how nurses go above and beyond for their patients.

Nurses are patient advocates, and they are the ones that spend most of the time with patients.” So why did it take so long for Hollywood to focus on nurses?

“I don’t know, I really don’t,” Pinkett Smith says. “It could be that the doctor is [perceived as] more glamorous because the stakes are high. It’s life and death when you’re dealing with the doctors going into surgery and cutting open [a patient]. And it definitely takes you into a different kind of economic realm, because doctors make a lot of money. So Hollywood may have seen [the doctor’s world] as just a more [exciting] place to live.”

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The same life-and-death extremes are at stake with nursing, she emphasizes, but on a much more personal level because nurses spend so much time with their patients.

Setting an Example

At a time when African Americans and other racial and ethnic minorities are still woefully underrepresented in the registered nurse workforce, “HawthoRNe” presents a highly visible minority nurse role model that will hopefully encourage at least some young men and women of color to consider nursing as a career. And because Pinkett Smith’s character is a nursing executive who, as TNT’s promotional material puts it, “will not hesitate to defend her staff against egotistical doctors or stand up to apathetic administrators who seem to have forgotten a hospital’s true purpose,” the show sends a clear message that nursing can be an empowering career that offers minority nurses the opportunity to advance into leadership positions.

A team effort: “HawthoRNe” cast members (L-R) David Julian Hirsh, Christina Moore, Jada Pinkett Smith, Michael Vartan and Suleka Mathew.A team effort: “HawthoRNe” cast members (L-R) David Julian Hirsh, Christina Moore, Jada Pinkett Smith, Michael Vartan and Suleka Mathew. Photo: Robert Trachtenberg

A TV show has not featured an African American nurse in the lead role since Diahann Carroll played the title character on “Julia,” a light-hearted sitcom that ran for 86 episodes on NBC from 1968 to 1971. Pinkett Smith says she’s grateful to actors like Carroll who paved the way for her and others.

“I feel like it’s a great callback,” she comments. “[Carroll’s character] was a nurse and now you have a [show with] a chief nursing officer who is a black female. And mind you, there are not a lot of black female chief nursing officers, period, in the United States. So it’s really a sign of the times on a whole other level, which is nice.”

“HawthoRNe” offers additional role models in the form of Christina Hawthorne’s racially and genderdiverse nursing staff. Besides Pinkett Smith, the show features Asian Canadian actress Suleka Mathew (“Men in Trees”) as Bobbie Jackson, a fellow nurse and Christina’s best friend; David Julian Hirsh (“Lovebites”) as Ray Stein, a nurse struggling to be accepted in a female-dominated profession; and Christina Moore (“90210”) as nurse Candy Sullivan. Other cast members include Michael Vartan (“Alias”) as Dr. Tom Wakefield; Hannah Hodson (TNT’s “The Ron Clark Story”) as Camille, Christina’s daughter; and special guest star Joanna Cassidy (“Six Feet Under”) as Christina’s mother-inlaw, Amanda, who is a member of the hospital board.

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Other than Jill Scott, who stars in HBO’s “The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency,” Pinkett Smith is currently the only black female lead in a television drama show. However, she hopes “HawthoRNe” viewers won’t dwell too much on the issue of race but focus instead on the show’s quality and universal appeal.

“I’m hoping that [when people watch a show like this, they can see it as just] a great show, whether the actor that’s standing in the forefront is an African American, an Asian or a Native American. But I must say that I’m really grateful for the opportunity. There was probably a point in time where I wouldn’t have had this opportunity.”

After establishing herself as a successful film actress, including roles in “The Women,” and “The Matrix Trilogy,” Pinkett Smith had vowed never to do television again. (She got her first big break on the NBC series “A Different World.”) But then her manager called and urged her to read the script for “HawthoRNe.” “I read it, and then I let my husband [actor Will Smith] read it, and he said, ‘You know, take the meeting and see.’”

After meeting with the project’s key players, including creative/executive producer John Masius (“St. Elsewhere,” “Providence”) and executive producer Jamie Tarses (“My Boys”), she was sold on the idea.

My Mother the Nurse

Having grown up with a nurse in the family, Pinkett Smith was able to draw from personal experience as she prepared to play the part of Christina Hawthorne. Because she had spent years watching her mother work, the actress didn’t need to be educated about the critical and dramatic role nurses play in the world. Her mom’s confidence and problem-solving skills helped inform the part.

She’s not a real nurse, but her mother is: Jada Pinkett Smith and her mom, Adrienne Banfield-Jones, BSN, RN, on the “HawthoRNe” set.She’s not a real nurse, but her mother is: Jada Pinkett Smith and her mom, Adrienne Banfield-Jones, BSN, RN, on the “HawthoRNe” set. Photo: Karen Neal

“Just watching her, it amazes me,” says Pinkett Smith. “She was there with me a couple of times where we’ve had some medical emergencies in the house with [my] kids and [it amazes me] how automatically she goes into this analytical mode of focus. She just is a great problem solver.”

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Banfield-Jones felt a calling to work in the health care field from an early age. “My father was a doctor, and as a child I would go to the hospital with my dad,” she says. “I just loved being in the hospital with him. That was our special time together.”

After graduating from high school, she became a medical secretary. One day when her sister was ill, she helped her dad start an IV. “He said, ‘You know, you’re really good at that. You ought to go to nursing school.’”

Banfield-Jones took her father’s advice. She graduated from nursing school at 27, worked as a medical/surgical nurse for a year to get a well-rounded background and planned to go into labor and delivery nursing. But she got sidetracked into ambulatory care and ended up in mid-level management for 15 years. Finally she got disillusioned, quit, and found a position in labor and delivery, eventually working what she considered her dream job at St. Rose Dominican Hospital in the Las Vegas area.

“I loved it,” she recalls. “I was just a little sorry it took me so long to get there.” Today Banfield-Jones travels with her famous daughter and helps take care of her grandkids on TV and movie sets. She no longer works as a professional nurse, but her skills continue to serve her loved ones well. As her daughter puts it, “My family pretty much knows that for any type of physical traumas like cuts and bruises, you’ve got to call Gammy (the kids’ grandmother) to take care of that.”

Pinkett Smith, on the other hand, wanted to be an actress since she was three and doesn’t care for the sight of blood.

“There was one scene [in ‘HawthoRNe’ where] somebody had an open gash on their leg, and that kind of caught me off guard,” she admits. “I’m really not someone who [can stomach] a lot of blood and gore like that, which is funny. That’s why my mother is very surprised that I’m playing a nurse.”

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Banfield-Jones is excited about the show’s focus on nursing. “I’m really anxious to see how nurses are going to respond and I hope they are happy with it,” she says.

Getting It Right

Banfield-Jones reads the “HawthoRNe” scripts as an “unofficial consultant” for Pinkett Smith and gives feedback whenever something doesn’t seem quite right from a nursing or medical perspective. A fan of the television series “ER,” she used to catch errors on that show. Now, though, she says she sees firsthand how hard it is to tell a good story and still have it jibe with reality.

“HawthoRNe” draws extensively on executive producer Glen Mazzara’s 13 years of experience as a nursing logistics manager at New York City’s St. Vincent’s Hospital and the New York University Medical Center. The show also employs medical consultants, including Armand Dorian, MD, FACEP, and a nursing consultant, Susie Schelling, BSN, RN. They review scripts and work with everyone—from makeup artists to directors—to make sure the medical details are right.

Schelling, who divides her time between working as an OR nurse and serving as a medical consultant for movies and TV shows, says she helps answer questions like: What would the diagnosis be for a patient presenting a certain set of symptoms? When would doctors operate? Should the head be up or down on the gurney? If a patient were about to pass out, would his lips be pink or white?

 

Before shooting started for “HawthoRNe,” Schelling took the cast on a tour of a hospital so they could talk to nurses and see them in action. She also set up a one-afternoon medical boot camp, where the actors learned to do tasks such as putting on a blood pressure cuff, taking a pulse, drawing blood—or rather, pretending to draw blood—and listening through a stethoscope.

“That way, when they’re working, they can worry about their lines and not about where to find the pulse,” she says.

Overall, the show strives for accuracy, and Schelling says Pinkett Smith is dedicated to getting it right. As a nurse, Schelling is excited about the show’s portrayal of her profession.

“I love the way [‘HawthoRNe’] is showing how nurses support each other and work as a team with the physicians,” she explains. “It’s really refreshing. I heard someone say that the show is a valentine to nurses.”

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No Shortage of Nurses on TV

The year 2009 could very well go down in television history as The Year of the Nurse. Including “HawthoRNe,” no less than three TV series focusing on nurses are premiering this summer or fall. Showtime has recently introduced “Nurse Jackie” and NBC will roll out “Mercy” at the start of the new 2009- 2010 season.

“Nurse Jackie,” which premiered June 8, is a half-hour dark comedy starring Edie Falco (“The Sopranos”) as ER nurse Jackie Peyton, who struggles to “navigate the rough waters of a crumbling health care system, doing everything she can to give her patients the best care possible” while dealing with personal problems, including a possible addiction to prescription drugs for back pain. “Mercy” portrays the lives of a hospital staff as seen through the eyes of its nurses, including Veronica Callahan (played by Taylor Schilling, “Dark Matter”), who has just returned to Mercy Hospital after serving as a military nurse in Iraq.

Although “HawthoRNe” is the only one of these new nursing shows in which the leading character is a nurse of color, the other two series do have some supporting characters who are minority nurses. On “Nurse Jackie,” film and TV actor Haaz Sleiman plays Jackie’s nursing colleague Mohammed “Mo-Mo” de la Cruz. The cast of “Mercy” includes Jamie Lee Kirchner (“Rescue Me”) as nurse Sonia Jimenez and Guillermo Diaz (“Weeds”) as nurse Angel Lopez.

Why all the sudden interest in nurses?

“People love medical shows,” Pinkett Smith says. “And I think [what probably happened is that there were several different people who, all at the same time,] came up with the idea, ‘Oh my goodness, nursing! We really haven’t seen the medical profession from the vantage point of a nurse.’ I’m actually very happy that this opportunity has come, because I find nursing to be a fascinating profession. I wish luck to all the shows.”

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