8 ways Hollywood gets medicine totally wrong

Ben Falk
Split – Credit: Rex_Shutterstock

Filmmakers always talk about craving authenticity – but that often doesn’t seem to be the case when it comes to diseases and medical procedures on-screen. As the multiple personality thriller ‘Split’ arrives in cinemas, we talked to pharmacology and neuroscience expert Professor Alasdair Gibb and Los Angeles-based surgeon Dr Ralph Massey about what the movies get wrong.

You can’t save someone from a heroin overdose with adrenaline to the heart like in ‘Pulp Fiction’

Pulp Fiction – Credit: Miramax

We all know the scene – Travolta carries Uma Thurman into Eric Stoltz’s house after she accidentally ODs on heroin and brings her back to life by stabbing her in the heart with a big needle of adrenaline.

“Poor old Uma would have died, it’d have done nothing for the opiates,” says Professor Gibb. “Opiates kill people by prohibiting the respiratory drive. It’s a neuroscience thing about breathing, nothing to do with the heart. What they should be doing is giving her a morphine antagonist called naloxone.”

Truth serums don’t work

The Guns of Navarone – Credit: Getty

James Bond has been given them, along with countless other captured movie spies.

In ‘The Guns of Navarone’, Anthony Quayle is injected with scopolamine, which was initially tested as a so-called ‘truth drug’. Only problem is, it would have the opposite effect.

“Scopolamine is used as an anti-emetic, it’s helpful for travel sickness,” says Professor Gibb. “But it has a mild effect of making your memory worse. So giving [a character] the scopolamine, rather than making him give you the secrets, he would probably have forgotten them.”

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He continues, “Truth drugs are a nonsense. There’s nothing you can give someone which would override their ability to distinguish between fact and fiction. Anything you would give them would just confuse them. They’d be just as likely to give you a complete fantasy as state secrets.”

When you wake up from a four-year ‘Kill Bill’-style coma, your limbs are jelly and you won’t be winning any fights

Kill Bill Vol. 1 – Credit: Miramax

Quentin Tarantino does make it so Uma Thurman can’t walk after waking up, but why would her arms be any different? Instead, she’s strong enough to kill two people and still looks beautiful. Impossible, unfortunately.

“After a 4-year coma, you are emaciated, probably have terrible bed sores and incredibly weak,” says Dr Massey. “It would take a week of physical therapy etc. to get back on your feet.”

The people who got cured in ‘Outbreak’ would probably have caught the virus again the next day

Outbreak – Credit: Rex_Shutterstock

This is a bit complex to explain, but basically boils down to the fact the scientists in the film create an antiserum to ‘cure’ the Ebola-like Motaba virus, rather than a vaccine to immunise everyone from it moving forward.

“You’d get the antibodies from the monkey and injecting that into the patient could potentially mop up the virus in the patient,” says Professor Gibb. “The problem with it is your own immune system would recognise those antibodies as foreign and your own immune system would immediately start mopping up the antibodies.

Tomorrow you might get exposed to the virus again and you’d get infected. It’s not the same as immunisation.”

If you gave yourself a C-section like in ‘Prometheus’, it’s unlikely you’d immediately be running fast enough to escape aliens

Prometheus – Credit: 20th Century Fox

Anyone who’s had even the tiniest surgical procedure on their stomach area, let alone a caesarean, will know how ridiculous this is – though we’re guessing director Ridley Scott will put it down to the fact Noomi Rapace is using space medicine, or something.

Rapace’s character Shaw uses an automated robot surgeon to remove the beast, before stapling her up with metal clips. But, as Dr Massey says, “[A C-section] is significantly more complex than cutting off a limb, but that aside you don’t jump up 10 minutes later, even with a [painkiller] or two!”

There’s controversy over whether split personality disorder actually exists

Split – Credit: Rex_Shutterstock

Ever since 1957’s ‘The Three Faces of Eve’, multiple personality disorder, otherwise known as dissociative identity disorder, has become a well-worn Hollywood trope.

It’s being used again in M Night Shyamalan’s thriller ‘Split’, in which James McAvoy plays a character with 24 separate personalities. The problem is that the condition still remains a controversial one amongst mental health professionals.

Professor Gibb has his doubts. “My feeling is it’s not real, [it occurs because] the person’s behaviour suffers an exaggerated change based on the circumstances.”

He suggests it could be an issue with diagnosis, or that it could be something a patient believes and is therefore real for them.

Alternatively, he argues, “it’s more likely this is the extremes of the range. Some days I get up and I feel enthusiastic about the world and other days I don’t. It’s not such a big difference. But for some people there might be a huge contrast between those two things and those phases might last for long enough that it appears the person has two personalities.”

Once someone has flatlined, you don’t shock them back to life

Flatliners – Credit: Rex_Shutterstock

It’s been in films forever from ‘Flatliners’ to ‘The Abyss’ – the morbid beep of the heart machine with a straight line running across the monitor, cue defibrillation paddles to shock the patient back to life.

Only that’s not how it works. “Defibrillation is used when you are in ‘ventricular fibrillation’,” says Dr Massey. “On the screen you see a jittery jagged line. If you are ‘flatlining’ that’s ‘asystole’, for which the treatment is drugs such as adrenaline, not shocking with a defibrillator.”

In other words, that ‘Pulp Fiction’ needle thing? This is when you use it.

There’s a lot more poo involved in real childbirth

Knocked Up – Credit: Universal

Sorry, but it’s true. Childbirth is beautiful and amazing and terrifying and icky.

In a way, it’s surprising that Judd Apatow didn’t take the opportunity in ‘Knocked Up’ to show Katherine Heigl’s character loosening her bowels during the birth scene, but we guess that’s too far even for him.

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