In this column, I present my top 5 movie recommendations for pharmacy students.
Pharmacy school can be an incredibly stressful time due to constant studying, assignments, internships, and exams. In between all of this work, it’s important to find some time to relax and mentally unwind. Watching movies, in moderation, can be a great way to kick back and take your mind off school for a short period.
Here are my personal top 5 movie recommendations for pharmacy students. Don’t worry, I made sure to omit any major movie spoilers.
1. Something the Lord Made (2004)
This 2004 movie tells the true story of Vivien Thomas, a man who worked his way up from a janitor to pioneer in cardiac surgery. The film begins in the year 1930 when Dr. Alfred Blalock, a surgeon at Vanderbilt University, hires Thomas as an assistant in his lab. While Thomas had always dreamed of becoming a surgeon, he was unable to afford the education to become one. To Blalock’s surprise, Thomas displays remarkable intelligence and a keen interest in medicine.
Thomas quickly becomes an invaluable assistant to Dr. Blalock and the duo start testing a technique that allows them to correct a congenital heart defect called tetralogy of Fallot, also known as blue baby syndrome. Throughout this process, Thomas has to navigate a world of segregation and contempt as he struggles with a low salary, having to use a separate restroom and a back entrance at the hospital for African Americans, and a lack of recognition for his life-saving work.
Something the Lord Made was a truly fantastic movie. The film was nominated for 9 Emmy Awards and won 3 awards. It also received 2 Golden Globe nominations. I remember watching this movie for an extra credit assignment in pharmacy school and being amazed that I never knew about this story prior. Today, Thomas is highly regarded in the medical community for his life-saving procedures and for paving the way for African Americans to further advance within the field of medicine.1
2. Wit (2001)
Wit is a 2001 television movie, based on an award winning play, that details the struggles of life with cancer and the ethics of medical research. The story revolves around Vivian Bearing, an incredibly bright and academic English professor, who is diagnosed with stage-four ovarian cancer at the age of 48. After talking with her physician, Vivian agrees to an aggressive and experimental 8-month chemotherapy regimen. It is explained to Vivian that she will be relied on “her resolve” to withstand many of the medication’s side effects.
As Vivian’s cancer continues to progress and she suffers from the intense side effects of the chemotherapy, she starts to find herself being seen less as a person by doctors, and more as a research subject. Only 1 nurse, Susie, seems to care for Vivian throughout the movie, leading to the pair to form a close bound.
Wit is a powerful, heartbreaking, movie that provides a deep insight into the struggles with cancer, which nearly any viewer can relate to either directly or indirectly. It also provides an honest look into the medical profession; not to downplay or dismiss the role of healthcare professionals, but rather remind us that it’s easy to overlook the thoughts and feelings of an individual patient.
3. Patch Adams (1998)
Patch Adams tells the true-story of Dr. Hunter “Patch” Adams, played by Robin Williams, who uses his unique personality in an attempt to change the course of medicine. After a brief stay in a mental hospital, Adams finds that using empathy and humor are critical in helping others through the healing process. From this experience, he decides to enroll at the Medical College of Virginia in hopes of bringing this new belief to the medical profession.
Throughout the movie, Adams clashes with the school’s Dean who doesn’t believe that doctors should form any type of personal relationships with patients. Instead, Adams argues that they must "treat the patient as well as the disease," which he accomplishes through wearing disguises, including a clown nose, understanding patients’ thoughts and fears, and injecting humor when talking with patients. Due to his antics, the school dean attempts to expel Adams several times. As the movie progresses, Adams decides to open a non-licensed clinic whose mission is to treat patients using humor and compassion.
Patch Adams is a feel good story whose message is relevant for any healthcare professional, including pharmacists. The movie reminds clinicians that patients are more than a simple diagnosis, record number, or even prescription. The importance of empathy in the medical profession, and adapting to a patient’s needs, can never be overlooked.
4. Side Effects (2013)
Side Effects is a 2013 thriller about a woman who kills her husband after being prescribed a new antidepressant. The movie starts with a woman named Emily Taylor, who struggles with depression and attempts to kill herself shortly after her husband is released from prison for insider trading. Emily is subsequently assigned a psychiatrist who evaluates Emily and prescribes a series of antidepressants with minimal effect.
After another near-suicide attempt, Emily is prescribed a new experiment antidepressant, called Ablixa. While initially Emily responds very well to the drug, she reports experiencing sleepwalking as a side effect. One day, Emily’s husband Martin comes home and she stabs him to death with a knife, presumably in another sleepwalking episode. Emily is arrested, pleads insanity, and is declared not guilty on the condition that she stay in a mental institution until cleared by a psychiatrist. From there, things start to take an unexpected turn.
Unlike several of the previous movies mentioned, Side Effects is not based on a true story. But the plot does make for a good movie, with some interesting twists along the way. The movie has a solid cast, starring Jude Law, Rooney Mara, Channing Tatum, and Catherine Zeta-Jones. I would be remiss not to mention that while the movie is far-fetched at times, it does make some valid points about the state of mental health in the United States. Also, it is worth noting that there have been handful cases of homicidal sleepwalking over the years, some of which were associated with medication use.
5. John Q. (2002)
Starring Denzel Washington, John Q. tells the story of John Quincy Archibald, a man who goes to extreme measures after learning his health insurance will not cover a heart transplant for his son. The movie starts with John’s son, Michael, collapsing at a baseball game and being immediately taken to the hospital. The family then learns that Michael has an enlarged heart and will require a costly heart transplant to live. Unfortunately for the family, John’s insurance had recently changed and the new policy will not cover the surgery. Furthermore, John learns he is unable to qualify for Medicaid and that the hospital will not add his son to the transplant list without a substantial down payment on the $250,000 procedure. After being unable to raise the money on their own, John takes the hospital hostage in an effort to save his son’s life.
Although the story in John Q. is fictional, evidence shows that violence has become more common inside US hospitals.2 Notably, in 2015 a father held a Texas hospital hostage to prevent taking his son off life support. While the reason for increased violence is likely to be multifactorial, increasing medical deductibles, copays, and coinsurances may be leading to frustration for patients who are unable to pay for medical procedures.
The movie highlights some critical issues with the healthcare system in the United States, primarily involving the extremely high cost of medical care. It is worth noting, however, that John’s insurance plan cap of $20,000 would be very uncommon, and that charity programs do exist to help cover the cost of many medical procedures.
Overall, John Q. is an entertaining movie. The plot is far-reaching at times and contains some noticeable plot holes, but Denzel’s acting and the unique story definitely makes the movie worth watching.