Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Mrs. Hufnagel Chronicles, Part 16

Dr. Westphall reviews the Hufnagel case and finds her medical care inadequate, but he soon discovers the rest of the story.

Per the patient's wishes, Paramedic Faith Yee (Christina
Kokubo) skips the E.R. and brings Mrs. Hufnagel
(Florence Halop) straight to the ward.
If I had to pick my favorite Mrs. Hufnagel appearance, this one, from the episode, "Red, White, Black and Blue", would be the one of the top contenders. Paramedic Faith Yee (Christina Kokubo) wheels a gurney towards the nurses' station. Dr. Jacqueline Wade (Sagan Lewis) directs her to the E.R., where new admissions are supposed to go, but Faith says that the patient insisted. It's Mrs. Hufnagel (Florence Halop), admitted with symptoms of myocardial infarction, and she wants to skip ahead and go straight to her room. Jackie agrees to admit her. Mrs Hufnagel has clearly learned how to work the system, ensuring she gets the side of the building with optimal radio reception.

Later, Dr. Wade presents the case to the Director of Medical Education, Dr. Donald Westphall (Ed Flanders). After a round of groans and comments from the other residents, Wade describes how the patient has been re-admitted several times, each time with a more serious condition. Westphall reviews Hufnagel's chart and discovers that different doctors had prescribed medications that combined to create a blood clot and cause an aneurysm to form in her heart, and because of the residents' medical mismanagement, the patient is now seriously ill. He chastises them for not caring and ends up taking the case himself.

Drs. Chandler, Ehrlich, Axelrod and Wade (L-R Denzel
Washington, Ed Begley, Jr., Stephen Furst, Sagan Lewis)
realize the seriousness of Mrs. Hufnagel's medical
When he arrives at Mrs Hufnagel's room, she is in the middle of fielding an obscene phone call, which she plays along with willingly until the caller gets into the "rough stuff." Hufnagel recognizes Westphall as the "high muckety-muck," and when he informs her of his official title, she balks, "you call what goes on here 'medicine'?" He tries to sympathize, but she soon demonstrates her uncanny ability to seize upon someone's insecurities and turn them into the focal point of the conversation. This exchange is worth typing out.

"The one thing that worries me about dying," she explains, "is being alone. See, I've got nobody. I live alone...just like you. I mean, your wife's dead, you got a daughter in college somewhere, and that retarded kid, boy, that's...that's a kick in the shorts. You poor fellow. The thing I can't figure out is how they can let you run a hospital."

"What do you mean?" Westphall asks.

"You're a jinx!"

"Mrs. Hufnagel..." Donald tries to cut in, but is interrupted.

"Come to think of it, this whole place is jinxed. Auschlander's about ready to kick the bucket; Morrison got his degree from a cracker jack box; Rosenthal isn't exactly symmetrical; Ehrlich, he's got bad luck in his genes...and behind those sensible wrinkles in your forehead, your life's a mess."

And that's all Donald can take. He drops her chart off at the nurses' station, and instructs the nurse to notify Dr. Craig that he will be taking over Hufnagel's case.

Other stuff:
Dr. Donald Westphall (Ed Flanders) learns firsthand why
the doctors won't treat Mrs. Hufnagel.
  • I love the reactions on the doctors' faces as they hear about the illnesses that have befallen Mrs. Hufnagel, and each physician remembers that they were the one who treated her for that particular ailment. Their guilt makes it so much funnier when Westphall gets the Hufnagel treatment himself.
  • In an episode prior to this one, Donald's daughter Lizzie came back home, wanting to drop out of Vassar, but he sent her back in her own best interest, despite missing her and his autistic son Tommy, whom Donald sent to live in a group home after he became unmanageable. Notice how his face drops when she mentions Lizzie.
  • "Rosenthal isn't exactly symmetrical" -- Nurse Helen Rosenthal (Christina Pickles) found a lump in her breast in season one, and had a mastectomy.
  • In case you didn't remember what this exchange was about... Before Jackie presents her case, we hear Wayne talk to Phil about his former girlfriend, Nurse Shirley Daniels (Ellen Bry). "It was weird...Shirley acted like everything was great...she was too up." Shirley is out on bail, facing trial for murdering Dr. Peter White (Terence Knox), the St. Eligius rapist from season two. She wants to plead guilty, proud of what she did. Not long after this scene, she returns to work in the E.R. and pulls a gun on a patient and Dr. Jack Morrison (David Morse). It's not a real gun , but we don't know that until after she pulls the trigger. ("Can't anyone around here take a joke?" she responds before walking out.) She makes one more appearance after that, as a prisoner returning to St. Eligius for medical treatment in season five.
  • I enjoy how well Faith Yee takes the "Suzie Wong" nickname that Hufnagel has bestowed upon her.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Mrs. Hufnagel Chronicles, Part 15

Mrs. Hufnagel takes issue with the billing practices at St. Eligius, but pays her bill nonetheless.

Mrs. Hufnagel (Florence Halop) meets fellow gerbil
enthusiast Tony Clifton (John Corey).
The fifteenth installment of the continuing adventures of St. Eligius's most difficult patient, from the episode "Any Portrait in a Storm", begins with an introduction to happy-go-lucky telephone installer Tony Clifton (John Corey), who is using gerbils to run cable through St. Eligius's ducts. He draws the ire of short-tempered ward nurse Lucy Papandrao (Jennifer Savidge), then informs her that one of his rodent employees is missing.

I've also left in one of St. Elsewhere's greatest meta gags. Orderly Warren Coolidge (Byron Stewart) moved from Los Angeles to Boston to play college basketball, but he blew out his knee and ended up working at St. Eligius. Television viewers first knew Warren when he was a star high school player on the CBS drama, The White Shadow (1978-81), an MTM production created by St. Elsewhere executive producer Bruce PaltrowTimothy Van Patten played teammate Mario "Salami" Pettrino, so when Warren sees Dean, the drug dealer/hustler boyfriend of a coke-addicted pregnant fourteen-year-old, who happens to be played by Van Patten, he thinks he's seeing his fellow Carver High alum and calls out to him.. Dean replies, "you've got the wrong guy, pal." Warren stands confused for a moment, then walks away singing "Purple Haze" to himself: "things they don't seem the same."

Warren Coolidge (Byron Stewart) thinks he's spotted his
old Carver High teammate (Timothy Van Patten).
Mrs. Hufnagel is once again keeping herself occupied with her ham radio when Clifton's runaway employee ends up in her room, and the two hit it off over their shared enthusiasm for gerbils (Tony's are named Ike and Tina). Nurse Papandrao arrives with an IV ordered by Dr. Chandler, and Hufnagel has taken it upon herself to monitor the hospital's charges, having already run up quite a few bills in her previous visits. Papandrao explains that she doesn't need to do that--the hospital tracks billable expenses by placing stickers on a chart on the back of the door. The enlightened patient then takes it upon herself to do some creative accounting.

Later, we rejoin Mrs. Hufnagel in the hospital's financial department, where she has kept a beleaguered administrator long past the end of her shift by refusing to pay charges for items she doesn't feel justified paying for. Chief of Services Dr. Daniel Auschlander (Norman Lloyd) arrives to settle the dispute.

After calling Auschlander "Jeeves," she once again demonstrates her uncanny ability to hit someone where it hurts when she recognizes him as the guy whose portrait in the "rogues gallery" (actually, the hospital's chapel, where his portrait will be hung next to that of Father McCabe, the hospital's founder, hence the title of the episode) made him look like "death warmed over." Auschlander had been in a particularly cranky mood over the idea and process of having his portrait painted.

Dr. Daniel Auschlander (Norman Lloyd) counts out the
Benjamins as Mrs. Hufnagel pays her bill.
She asks him why she has to pay for things like surgical gloves (which she doesn't even wear) and rubbing alcohol (for that kind of money, they could have used Chivas). Auschlander inquires about her payment options, and we learn that Hufnagel doesn't believe in medical insurance, and when he asks about Medicare, she replies, "A senior citizen with the big C and you're beatng the drum for Medicare? Doesn't cover diddly-squat."

But for all her haggling over the bill, we find out that it's not because she can't afford it. Quite the contrary--her father sold short before the Great Depression, and she's got enough to cover her cash. The look on Norman Lloyd's face as he counts out the hundreds along with her is hilarious.

Here's Mrs. Hufnagel in "Any Portrait in a Storm":

Observations & trivia:
  • The callsign Mrs. Hufnagel uses here is Kilo-Alpha-Six-Zulu-Golf-Bravo, or KA6ZGB. You can hear the voice on the radio say "El Salvador." Last time, in "Give the Boy a Hand", she called, "come in, KA6ZGZ." That was the callsign for her compadre in Puerto Rico. The last few letters of a callsign in amateur radio are unique to operators, while the letters at the beginning indicate location.
  • This is a great episode for commentary on health care costs. Edward Copeland assembled an excellent video essay on St. Elsewhere's treatment of money in medicine in his 30th anniversary retrospective at PressPlay.
  • The use of the name "Tony Clifton" is a tribute to the recently departed Andy Kaufman (who died of cancer in 1984).

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Mrs. Hufnagel Chronicles, Part 14

Mrs. Hufnagel needs gallbladder surgery, but she insists on a new physician when she meets Dr. Chandler.

Ham radio enthusiast Mrs. Hufnagel (Florence Halop)
assumes that Dr. Philip Chandler is an orderly.
In her previous appearance, Mrs. Hufnagel (Florence Halop) had been discharged from St. Eligius, but a visit from Dr. Elliott Axelrod (Stephen Furst) and his gift of a baked ham for his former patient aggravated her gallbladder symptoms and landed her back in the hospital. In "Give the Boy a Hand", her case has been assigned to Dr. Philip Chandler (Denzel Washington). Mrs. Hufnagel, whose racial insensitivity had been established in her first appearance, is trying to get a signal on her ham radio to connect with her compadre in Puerto Rico. Phil enters, but she assumes he's an orderly and asks him to adjust her antenna.

When he explains that he's her new doctor, she's not having it, and insists on someone else. Phil asks her why, and she's not shy about her reason: "You're colored." While conceding that Phil is a snazzy dresser, and despite learning that he went to Yale, Hufnagel is wary of his credentials, as he was likely put through due to affirmative action. Phil defends himself--he graduated pre-med Summa cum Laude with a distinction in biochemistry, his grade point average was 3.9, and he finished in the top 2% of his class at Yale. Her dismissive, racist, yet hilarious reply: "Go tell it on the mountain."

Dr. Chandler handles Mrs. Hufnagel's (Florence Halop)
racially-insensitive remarks with class as only Denzel can.
Her colicystitis requires surgery, and all the physician has to do is see her through post-op follow-up, but when he asks his colleagues Axelrod, Fiscus (Howie Mandel) and Ehrlich (Ed Begley, Jr.) to help him out and take over his case, he gets a sharp rebuke from the three doctors who have already done a few rounds with St. Eligius's most infamous patient. So, with the other doctors "too chicken" to take her on, she warms up to her latest physician. She's in good spirits after her operation, especially pleased the whiz of a surgeon was Asian.

It occurs to me now that not everyone might find such overt racism as funny as I do, but if you've got the kind of sensibilities that led you to watch and enjoy St. Elsewhere, then you'd probably get why it's funny coming out of this abrasive, old woman. Things have changed a lot since then. I haven't interacted with an overt bigot in a long time myself.

Despite her racial insensitivity, she's friendlier to Phil than all the other doctors except Dr. Bobby Caldwell (Mark Harmon). I think she respects people who stand up to her (or in Caldwell's case, those who charm her). Or maybe she just likes the good-looking ones.

Some other observations:
  • Chandler says he has taken over her case from Dr. Po, who has been called out of town. We met Dr. Alan Po (Brian Tochi) in the third season premiere, when he was one of the first-year residents taking a tour of the hospital led by Wayne Fiscus. Unless some stuff with him got cut out in syndication, this is the only other mention of that character. I enjoyed that the character's name was a goof on "Edgar Allan Poe".
  • Elliott's neck brace is the result of a headlock applied by a large, agitated patient in E.R. who freaked out while Elliott was taking blood. 1990s TV viewers will recognize him as James Avery, who was hilarious as Uncle Phil on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. His name does not appear in the credits.
  • We learn a bit about Mrs. Hufnagel's background. Florence's family, the Glucks, came over on a ship that pulled into Plymouth Rock just after the Mayflower. I couldn't make out the name of the boat. If anyone wants to take a stab at it, feel free to do so in the comments section.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

The Mrs. Hufnagel Chronicles, Part 13

Elliott pays a visit to the recently discharged Mrs. Hufnagel with the gift of a baked ham.

Mrs. Hufnagel (Florence Halop) was surprisingly
tech-savvy, especially for 1985.
In "Saving Face", the thirteenth episode of St. Elsewhere's third season to feature patient Florence Hufnagel (Florence Halop), Dr. Elliott Axelrod (Stephen Furst) is planning to pay a visit to a patient he has been worried about, and he asks senior doctors Wayne Fiscus (Howie Mandel), Victor Ehrlich (Ed Begley, Jr.), and Annie Cavanero (Cynthia Sikes) for gift suggestions. When Elliott reveals that the patient was none other than the abrasive Hufnagel, Ehrlich suggests he needs therapy.

For the first time, we see how Mrs. Hufnagel lives--in an apartment that houses her personally autographed photo of Ernest Borgnine, and her home computer which she uses to figure out the odds at the track. I enjoy Elliott's reaction to learning that a senior citizen like Hufnagel would be computer-savvy. I'm not sure what the actual percentage of American households had a personal computer in them in 1985, but it couldn't have been that high. (They had already done an arc in season two where a hacker breaks into the hospital's computer system and removes patients' records; it turned out to be a ten-year old girl home from school during a snowstorm, who later learns that she killed someone.)

Elliott has brought a ham for Mrs. Hufnagel, who is grieving the death of her almost-fiancee, Murray Robbin. (The gift is appropriate since Murray, a comedian of limited talent, was quite the ham himself.) He doesn't want to impose, but Mrs. Hufnagel, in an uncharacteristically friendly mood on her home turf, invites Elliott to stay and eat the ham with her, as she could use the company.

Elliott (Stephen Furst) is afraid he's killed Mrs. Hufnagel
with his gift.
Unfortunately, the ham aggravates Hufnagel's gallbladder symptoms, and she ends up unconscious on a gurney in the St. Eligius emergency room, convinced that Dr. Axelrod tried to kill her.

For those who remember this arc, I've left in the complete shot in the E.R. that includes part of the introduction of Maddy and Dean, a pregnant 14-year-old girl suffering from cocaine intoxication and her junkie/hustler boyfriend. Maddy is played by Lycia Naff, who earned a place in pop culture as the three-breasted prostitute in Total Recall, and Dean is played by Tim Van Patten, who had previously played Salami on Bruce Paltrow's The White Shadow, currently serves as executive producer on Boardwalk Empire, and also directed the pilot episode of Game of Thrones among numerous other impressive credits.

This clip also features Karen Austin as Dr. Mary Woodley; prior to this role, she had recently played Night Court's original court clerk, Lana Wagner. She's been working steadily since the late seventies, but I mostly know her as the mom in the John Candy comedy Summer Rental, which was a fixture on Saturday afternoon television in my youth.

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