Reality TV Bites

The night ABC's 'NY Med' secretly turned one family's crisis into primetime drama

A "NY Med" camera in the OR.

Mark Chanko was heading to an all-night deli to pick up milk and bananas on the night of the accident. A retired CFO enjoying, at 83, a second career as a financial advisor, he’d just returned with his wife Anita from their country house in Connecticut to their apartment on New York’s Upper East Side. It was late to be doing this errand, close to midnight, but he was thinking ahead to breakfast.

A private sanitation truck stood in a crosswalk at 79th Street and York Avenue, maybe 50 feet from their building. Since the streets were quiet, Chanko did what comes naturally to native New Yorkers: He improvised, sidestepping the blocked crosswalk and taking a direct path behind the truck. That’s when the truck abruptly backed up.

Their building’s doorman alerted Anita. She phoned her stepson Ken and rushed downstairs in time to see EMTs putting Mark into an ambulance. They wouldn’t let her ride with him, but she made it to the nearby hospital — the Weill Cornell campus of New York–Presbyterian, on East 68th Street — almost as fast as the ambulance did. There, she saw Mark on a stretcher being wheeled to an operating room. When Anita moved toward him, hoping to hold his hand for a few seconds, someone on the hospital staff intercepted her and pressed her to stay back.

Ken and his wife Barbara met Anita at the ER less than 30 minutes after receiving her call. A doctor told them Mark’s condition was grave: There was internal bleeding; his leg would have to be amputated. Ken’s sister Pamela arrived next. Then, around 1:30 a.m., a social worker ushered the four of them into a consultation room. Chief surgery resident Sebastian Schubl came in and delivered the terrible news.

“I did everything I possibly could,” Dr. Schubl said. “Unfortunately, he did not survive. I am sorry.”

What the Chankos didn’t know — what never would have occurred to them — is that there was a microphone in the room. Its purpose was to record Dr. Schubl’s words, followed by the family’s anguished response. In the hallway outside, a cameraman videotaped the moment obscurely through wire-mesh safety glass in the closed door. His camera angle made it unlikely that anyone inside the room would notice him.

Mark Chanko died on April 29, 2011. Sixteen months later, the events at Weill Cornell took on a bizarre new light when Anita Chanko saw her husband’s death featured, without his family’s knowledge or permission, on Episode 7 of ABC’s primetime reality series “NY Med.”

More than 1,800 patients have signed consent forms giving “NY Med” the go-ahead to put them on the air, according to Yet the show’s producers didn’t ask for consent this time. A lawyer at New York–Presbyterian, replying to an email from Ken, maintained that the Chankos’ identities were obscured. When Episode 7 first aired, on August 21, 2012, it didn't show the family members’ faces and stopped short of including their reaction in the consultation room. A camera crew dressed in scrubs — as though disguised as doctors — videotaped Mark Chanko inside the OR as Dr. Schubl told his medical team, “That leg’s got to come off.” But on the show the image of Chanko’s face was pixelated.

Still, his voice was recognizable when he asked the doctors, with breathtaking composure, “Did you speak with my wife yet?” In fact, anyone who knew about his accident might have identified him. Certainly his family did, and now they’re suing American Broadcasting Companies, New York-Presbyterian and Dr. Schubl. The judge in the case, Manuel J. Mendez, accepted as “potentially meritorious” two grounds for the lawsuit — emotional distress and exposure of confidential medical information — but this fall the defendants challenged that decision in appellate court, which dismissed the Chankos' case.

But that's not the end of the story. The Chankos have filed a motion to appeal the dismissal, which will take the matter back in front of the judges on January 7. If the family's motion is successful and the case moves forward, it will raise far-reaching issues involving the First Amendment and patients’ rights to privacy, along with the question of whether “NY Med,” produced by ABC News, is news or entertainment.

“Weill Cornell was just not delivering enough traumas,” executive producer Terence Wrong told the Philadelphia Inquirer in an article dated July 10, 2012, the day “NY Med” premiered. Worried that the series would “crash and burn” without regular pumps of adrenaline, he had assigned teams of videographers to cover the hospital’s ER 24/7. “NY Med” doesn’t focus solely on trauma — the show has light interludes and touches on the doctors’ love lives — but Chanko’s accident provided a dramatic element that Wrong was looking for and feared would be in short supply.

Of course, Mark Chanko wasn’t always a trauma patient. Born and raised in the Bronx, he served in the Army during the Korean War, studied accounting and scored No. 1 in New York State on his CPA exam. A father of five, he played bridge and tennis and was passionate about books and theater, but preferred to keep working after his retirement from Standard Motor Products in the ’90s. At 83, he managed investment portfolios for private clients, though he would have looked out of place on Wall Street. Unassuming yet something of an Anglophile, he loved Monty Python and often wore colorful Fair Isle sweaters. “We called them his Bill Cosby sweaters,” his son Ken remembers.

I didn’t know Mark Chanko, but Ken and Barbara have been friends of mine since the ’80s. It’s uncanny how their backgrounds reflect the issues entailed in their lawsuit. Ken, a teacher, is a former entertainment journalist. Barbara, a registered nurse, is a health care ethicist at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. She began her career in 1981 at Cornell Medical Center — since renamed Weill Cornell.

In Barbara's view, patients’ rights are clearly at risk when a hospital becomes the setting for a TV show. And the problem only gets worse in the ER, where patients arrive in a vulnerable state. “This isn’t like going on ‘Big Brother,’ where there’s a casting call,” she says. Barbara maintains that her father-in-law’s rights were violated the moment his medical information was revealed to a TV crew and he was exposed to a camera.

“Just the filming — without even airing it — is a breach of medical ethics,” says Ken’s brother Eric, an internist at Cayuga Medical Center in Ithaca, New York. Nor would a consent form have solved everything. As Eric sees it, the patient presented with that form might wonder whether he’ll receive less attention if he refuses to sign it.

ABC and New York-Presbyterian didn’t reply to requests for comment. But reviews of “NY Med” have been ecstatic. New York magazine’s Vulture website praised it as “reality TV done right” and called the current season “almost freakishly absorbing.” Metacritic rated the critical response to the first season as “universal acclaim.” In the cheesy context of reality television, the series looks classy — more polished than what's on cable and less obviously fake than, say, ABC’s “The Bachelor.”

The high concept is a real-life “Grey’s Anatomy.” Dr. Mehmet Oz has a prominent role, thanks to his celebrity status, but other stars have emerged. Dr. Debbie Yi, who married another ER doctor on the series, is engaging and telegenic. Dr. Schubl was another casting coup. The web-based ABC News Store bills him as “a Dr. McDreamy-like young trauma surgeon” who “tries to save the day” for a critically injured pedestrian (even though ABC has removed that segment from Episode 7). Dr. Schubl evokes sympathy as he tells viewers that delivering bad news to a family is “hands down the hardest thing about our jobs.” No mention of how hard that news is to receive.

By the time you reach your fifties, you've likely experienced firsthand the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. The televising of Mark Chanko’s death added a sixth stage: speculation. Two years after Episode 7 first aired, his family remains consumed with questions about how “NY Med” affected events at Weill Cornell. Anita wonders if she was steered away from Mark’s stretcher to prevent her from seeing videographers inside the OR. Something else haunts Ken. “My father was a modest guy,” he says. “I keep thinking that one of his last thoughts could have been, ‘What are these cameras doing here?'”

Once you start asking these questions, they don’t stop. Here’s another: Where was the microphone that recorded Dr. Schubl as he spoke to the Chankos? On Episode 7, he’s seen in green scrubs outside the OR after losing his patient. In the next shot, he’s wearing a black fleece jacket over his scrubs as he walks toward the consultation room. Did that jacket conceal a mic? Or was the room was bugged? Exactly how it all went down remains unclear.

At the same time, Ken was taken aback by what “NY Med” revealed to him (along with 4 million viewers). As he wrote me in an email, “There’s something really wrong in learning more about what happened to my father — that he asked whether his family knew what had happened to him — by watching a reality TV show 16 months later, than we learned from the hospital’s doctors and the social worker that night.”

After Dr. Schubl left the consultation room, the four family members stayed in place for some time, processing what had happened. “It felt like we were rooted there,” Barbara recalls. “We couldn’t move.” Eventually they arranged to see Mark’s body. Then they left the hospital and headed slowly up York Avenue to Anita’s apartment.

They saw flares ahead, and the block between 78th and 79th was roped off. Hours had passed — Ken remembers thinking there must have been another accident. Then, walking in the empty street, the Chankos came across the sanitation truck and its distraught driver. Although police were done questioning him, he too seemed rooted in place. As the Chankos got closer, he looked in their direction. “I don’t know if he knew who we were, but he turned and folded himself over a parking meter,” Barbara says. He appeared to be literally doubled over in pain.

Since that night, “NY Med” has continued to flourish. Its second season, which aired this summer, became the most watched show in its time slot. The show now weaves action at another location — Newark’s University Hospital — into each episode. “They do more traumas there than they do on the Upper East Side,” producer Wrong told the Hollywood Reporter. Newark, with its higher crime rate, “seemed like a very good opportunity.”

Season 2 debuted in June with a stunning bit of irony: In Episode 1, nurse Katie Duke — one of the show’s stars — loses her job for compromising the privacy of a patient who was hit by a subway train. After the trauma team treated the patient, Duke posted a snapshot of the mess inside the empty OR on Instagram, with the caption “Man Vs. 6 Train.” “They fired her for insensitivity,” says Mark J. Fox, the Chankos’ lawyer, “yet the hospital does virtually the same thing.”

Eventually, the deal between New York–Presbyterian and ABC may become public. Fox has made extensive discovery demands, and if the appellate court judges rule in the Chankos favor, the case will go to New York State's Court of Appeals. After that, it could go back to Judge Mendez, who would then rule on what the defendants must hand over to the Chankos. That includes a slew of information — notably the contract between the hospital and ABC and unedited copies of all video and sound recordings relating to the events surrounding Mark Chanko’s death. “Just the fact that these tapes exist and are in someone else’s possession doesn’t sit well with us, to say the least,” says Ken.

If the lawsuit proceeds, ABC will no doubt argue that “NY Med” is news broadcast exercising its right to free speech. New York–Presbyterian’s defense is harder to imagine. But one thing seems inarguable: This was a betrayal of a patient and his family at a time when they were most vulnerable. This was wrong.

"NY Med," Season 1, Episode 7 – Minus the Mark Chanko segment

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