LONDON — In December 2010, Adam Kay was working in a British maternity ward helping a younger doctor perform a Caesarean section. Kay had successfully delivered over 1,200 babies, but this operation was a disaster.
The mother had an undiagnosed condition affecting the placenta and should not have been allowed to go into labor. The doctors barely managed to save her life (she lost 12 liters of blood), but they could not save the baby.
“You want a healthy mom and a healthy baby, and it was the first time I didn’t have either of those things and I was the most senior person in the room,” Kay said in a recent interview. She said she had felt traumatized but the hospital’s reaction “was like I sprained my ankle or something.”
After that incident, Kay went off medicine. A scene reviewing the operation is missing from “This Is Going to Hurt,” a medical drama written by Kay and starring Ben Whishaw that premieres on AMC+ and Sundance Now on Thursday after being a hit in Britain. But many other episodes of her six years of working in hospitals do, in fictional form.
Since the show tries to show the reality of life in a maternity ward, some moments are heartbreaking. But many are also funny, including a moment when Whishaw’s character, an underpaid and overly stressed doctor named Adam, has to pull out a toy egg containing an engagement ring from inside a woman; the woman had inserted it as a surprise for her boyfriend.
The show was commissioned shortly after Kay published a collection of diaries warts and all (called “This Is Gonna Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Young Doctor”) documenting her life in British hospitals. That collection, released in 2017, sold more than 2.5 million copies and was translated into 37 languages.
Kay described the book as a “confidence trick,” where silly anecdotes were used to sell a book that contained serious commentary on health care and how politicians treat doctors and nurses (it was published a year after doctors in England went on strike for working). conditions). The success of the book led Kay to meet with Matt Hancock, the British health minister at the time, to push for more funding for doctors in need and to write newspaper columns.
Kay said that the current health minister, Sajid Javid, had also sent a note saying that his wife liked the book. Kay’s reaction, she said, was to wonder about the minister: “Have you read it? It is you who needs to read it.
Despite her prominence, when “This Is Gonna Hurt” appeared on the BBC in February, Kay didn’t garner a universally positive reaction. Milli Hill, founder of the Positive birth movement, which tries to combat negative ideas about childbirth; and some users of Mumsnet, an influential parenting website, labeled both Kay and Whishaw as biting misogynists for making fun of the women in his care. There was also criticism for the absence of the voices of pregnant people on the show, while Hill said that the birth scenes would be unpleasant to watch for anyone who was expecting a baby or had gone through a traumatic birth.
Sitting in a London hotel bar recently, Kay, 41, seemed confused by those responses. “I heard criticism that the show should be about moms,” she said. “But that’s someone else’s show. I’m a guy who used to be a doctor.”
Whishaw’s character was also meant to be reprehensible, Kay added: a doctor so under pressure that his life falls apart and affects those around him. Once a few episodes aired, Kay said, the public debate shifted and she began receiving emails from doctors thanking her for raising awareness of mental health issues doctors can face.
The show wasn’t really about the ward, Kay said, but about the pressures doctors face on the job, including untenable hours, bullying from bosses and patients, low wages, and often disintegrating home lives. with few outlets. Whishaw’s character can be seen passing on his problematic behaviors to a colleague, Shruti (Ambika Mod), a younger doctor meant to be under her wing.
Those mental stresses remain “a taboo subject” in many hospitals, Kay said. “Doctors are not meant to make you sick, and specifically they’re not meant to make you mentally ill,” she noted, adding that a doctor dies by suicide every three weeks in Britain.
The pressure on doctors in the country is only getting worse, he added. There is a serious shortage of workers in the NHS: the service has about 100,000 vacancies — and staff were already suffering from burnout long before the pandemic. “When I left, it was completely out of character in that no one stopped being a doctor,” Kay said. “Now everyone has an eye on the exit sign as the workload feels absolutely unsustainable.”
Despite the core message, Kay and the show’s two lead actors, Whishaw and Mod, said in interviews that it was a pleasure doing the series. Whishaw said in an email that when he received the script, he immediately “resonated with a truth.” Black comedy “was exactly the kind of humor people use when faced with terrible things,” he added, “and I liked the awkward, flawed, troubled person at the center of it.”
Mod, in her first major role, said the two actresses received a “crash course” in obstetrics and gynecology before filming, including learning how to deliver with forceps and how to perform C-sections. On set, real doctors, scrub nurses and anesthesiologists appeared as extras, she added, while prosthetics helped give the show its realism.
She said she was shocked by viewers who called the show’s operations bloody and intense in social media posts. “I didn’t think about that at all when we were filming, as we would be surrounded by pools of blood and amniotic fluid talking about what we were going to have for lunch,” she said.
Kay said that although the show focuses on Britain’s health service, she hoped it would strike a nerve in the United States as well. She imagines that “a delivery room is a delivery room, wherever it is,” she said. After the publication of her book in 2017, she received messages from doctors in countries such as Chad, Belarus and Venezuela, she added, saying that the topics were also valid for professionals in those countries.
“This Is Going to Hurt” was written as a one-off series, and Kay said that she had no plans to make a sequel. She knew she would reach her “lifespan as a writer” at some point, she said, and when that happened, she hoped to return to medicine, teach or try to change health policy.
“I feel very guilty about leaving,” Kay said. “Obviously I think the arts have enormous value, but you would have to have quite an ego as a writer to think I was less than 10 steps away from saving someone’s life in an operation.”