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Health issues spark viewer interest

Series can deliver info to those with similar conditions

When Jason Katims first began to ponder how to turn “Parenthood” the movie into a TV series, he looked within.

“I was thinking, ‘What would be my take on it?’ ” explains the exec producer. “What kinds of things am I thinking about and dealing with?”

At the time, it was Asperger’s syndrome, often known as high-functioning autism. His son Sawyer was diagnosed with it, and Katims was struggling to grasp its ramifications. Eventually, it led to a storyline on the show in which the son of Adam and Kristina Braverman is diagnosed with Asperger’s.

When the second episode featuring that story arc aired, Katims says, “Asperger’s was the most-searched term on Google that night.”

But “Parenthood” is not the only show dealing with such subjects. Television series around the dial have given writers a chance not only to address serious health issues, but to do so in unique ways.

A character on Lifetime skein “Army Wives” has diabetes, and others on the show deal with post-traumatic stress disorder. Showtime’s “The Big C” is about the challenges the lead character faces after being diagnosed with terminal cancer.

The sudden interest by viewers meant a lot to the “Parenthood” showrunner, who was also the driving force behind “Friday Night Lights.”

“It’s been very rewarding to me, and one of the most profound experiences in my career as a writer, to see something have that kind of effect so directly,” he says.

Renee Helie Wheelock, a mom in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., whose son has Asperger’s, says that mention of the condition on TV helps spread the word about the disease.

“Anytime it’s brought up in the media, whether it’s a TV show or some other way, I think it’s helpful,” she says.

Each year, she sends her son to Camp Spectacular in Glenville, N.Y., which is run for kids with Asperger’s by social worker Steve Szalowski.

“A kid (like the one) on ‘Parenthood’ wouldn’t have existed in a 1980s sitcom,” Szalowski says. “In ‘Parenthood, it’s an example of trying to work with a kid in a changing world.”

For “House” exec producer Thomas L. Moran, the challenges are different. Not only is the Fox show in itself a medical drama, but there are health issues — an addiction to Vicodin — that affect the lead, Dr. Gregory House, played by Hugh Laurie.

“We try to follow the character as best we can and not let the message drive the character,” Moran says. “We frequently get letters from viewers who tell us we’ve dealt with rare diseases, and they’re happy we shined a light on something that (nobody seems to have heard of. That makes them feel not so alone. We’re definitely aware of the impact the show has.”

In “The Big C,” Laura Linney’s Cathy Jamison develops a new outlook on life after she is diagnosed with terminal cancer. Exec producer Jenny Bicks, herself a cancer survivor, says the show’s creators wanted to use the illness as a way of looking at one’s life differently.

The outpouring of reaction from viewers whose lives have been affected in one way or another by cancer has been astounding, Bicks says. “(Cathy) has Stage 4 melanoma. I think we’ve had an impact on people who are not only (coping with cancer), but have loved ones going through it.”

Linney’s character on the show is frequently portrayed as something less than selfless.

“Cathy has helped illustrate that cancer patients don’t have an obligation to be saintly,” Bicks says. “There are so many rules about how one is supposed to behave when diagnosed. What’s interesting is to hear from people going through it who say, ‘Thank you for letting me be human.’ ”

Jeanie M. Barnett, director of communications for CancerCare, says that popular or critically acclaimed TV shows can do a great deal to raise awareness, and can bring people to organizations that help people deal with cancer.

Elsewhere, on “Army Wives,” the issue confronting Kim Delaney’s character, Claudia, is not life-threatening, but rather life-altering. For its portrayal of a character dealing with diabetes, “Army Wives” won the 2010 Sentinel for Health Award, presented by the USC Annenberg Normal Lear Center.

“Army Wives” has also confronted issues such as corneal transplants and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Exec producer Jeff Melvoin says great care is taken in dealing with such topics.

“We’re very concerned about getting the details right,” he says. “You’re always going to hear differences of opinion. We always want to make sure we present these issues in a way that is valid and could be supported.”

When a series causes folks to Google for more information about a malady, it has gone way beyond its entertainment mandate. Of course, there are always bumps in the road. Apparently a lot of people, notes Katims, didn’t know how to spell Asperger’s.

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