It’s a medical miracle
Following an extended scene in Vikram that shows a dead baby being resuscitated through CPR, we dig into Tamil cinema’s favourite medical twist and find out if there’s any truth to it
Hospital deaths in cinema are usually depicted by the use—or as some might say, overuse—of an electrocardiogram monitor signalling a flatline (technically called the asystole). All hope is lost, the character is dead, everyone’s a mess, and the situation is irredeemable—or is it? Enter the miracle that is CPR (Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation) or defibrillation. For quite a while now, our cinema has relied on it as an extremely reliable process through which the dead can be awakened—which, of course, is far from the truth. In the recently released Kamal Haasan-starrer Vikram, a toddler with a rare epilepsy disorder, stops breathing, and there’s no pulse. After a good 10 minutes seems to have passed, the kid is revived through CPR, administered by a rather shaky man who, it is fair to say, hasn’t exactly been trained in the process.
These are reasons why the medical community doesn’t quite take cinema too seriously. Actor Bharath Reddy, also a cardiologist by profession, has long been frustrated by all the exaggerations. “Everything is exaggerated. You’re talking about CPR, but I don’t even think actors get the basics of wearing a stethoscope right. People are exposed to international content today, and they expect a certain authenticity, which our cinema rarely meets."
Some films, like Action Hero Biju (2016), however get it right. In the film, a kid, who has just been rescued from drowning, isn't breathing and there's no pulse. Eventually, when the kid is rushed to a hospital, the doctors speak of how things might have been different, had the child been brought in ten minutes earlier—the same ten minutes that don’t quite seem to matter in Vikram.
Bharath notes that CPR is not the perfectly reliable procedure that films show it to be. "The technique is performed immediately after someone slips into arrest and collapses. Chances of survival depend on the condition really. It’s not a technique to revive the dead, not especially after some time has passed. It just doesn't work that way."
Going beyond inaccurate portrayal, our cinema has further looked to use this process for humour or as a means of titillation. Remember Karthi's 'Jintha Thaa Jintha Jintha' gag in Siruthai? Or the numerous occasions (shot in distasteful close-ups) when a hero performs CPR on an unconscious heroine who may be on the verge of death, but the hero still finds it to be a lucky opportunity to get to touch her? Singaravelan comes to mind.
Viji Vijayan, a nurse with 20 years of experience in emergency medicine, expects filmmakers to be more sensible in such portrayal. She bursts into laughter when we discuss Rajinikanth's Sivaji in which the protagonist electrocutes himself and dies, only to be revived later using a defibrillator. "Firstly, a defibrillator is not used on a patient whose heart has stopped. It's a misconception. To have the little chance of revival, you need to perform CPR, and that too, within seconds. Even when resuscitated, the person might end up being in a vegetative state because of the lack of blood circulation to the brain for as long."
It is also a general sight in cinema where people (not always medicos) are seen thumping the patient's chest or blowing into the person's mouth nonstop in the name of resuscitation. But the truth is that there's a specific technique to it. "CPR is a procedure that involves chest compressions along with artificial ventilation (mouth-to-mouth breathing). For an adult, it is done at the ratio of 30:2 — 30 compressions and 2 respirations. If not performed correctly, there are chances of the patient's rib getting broken and the lungs being damaged," emphasises Viji.
Arivazhagan, one of the few Tamil directors to have attempted a medical thriller (Kuttram 23), believes that filmmakers should do extensive research before representing such procedures in cinema. "People today have access to everything. A simple Google search would burst the myths that we have been feeding through our films for years. Also, they are exposed to international shows like Grey's Anatomy where the makers take painstaking effort to bring in realism. Our cinema must be more responsible about its portrayal."
While Arivazhagan is conscious of the liberties that can be taken in the medium, he believes that correct portrayal is a sign of respect for the audience and their intelligence. "A white coat and a stethoscope isn’t enough to make a doctor. From body language to the way they talk, every aspect is crucial. I might take liberties to spice up the fiction, but I'll always ensure that the audience's sensibilities are not insulted."
Who knows, we may get a film in the future that will show, in all seriousness, its protagonist digging out a decomposed corpse and administering CPR to bring them back to life. The music will rise to a crescendo and try to make you emotional. But you… you just remember to laugh.