Well, that was quick! A recent episode of the CW series The Flash started and completed a storyline involving a person with a malfunctioning insulin pump in 2 minutes 45 seconds. Unfortunately, by speeding up the action, they also made what happened onscreen medically inaccurate.
For those who don’t know, The Flash is about a young man struck by lightning who gains the ability to run and do things super-fast. (Incidentally, it also leaves him with one hell of an appetite, and I would love the writers to explore how his sped-up metabolism might affect his blood glucose levels, but I digress.) As with all comic-book-based shows, the Flash isn’t the only one with superpowers, and some of those people have bad intentions.
One of those bad, superpowered folks shows up in the episode entitled “Mixed Signals.” In the show, a malcontent tech geek named Ramsey Deacon has gained the ability to control technology through his body and uses this power to wreak havoc on those who have crossed him. It turns out that Ramsey is a Steve Wozniak or Winklevoss Twins figure in the Flash’s world, in that he came up with a great tech idea, but his fellow inventors took the idea from him and made millions off of it. Ramsey spends much of the episode using technology to kill or try to kill those former partners. Flash and his partner Kid Flash (yes, really) work to try and stop him in his bloodthirsty quest for revenge.
That’s when we are introduced to Sheila Agnani, one of the inventors who got rich off the malware. When confronted by Ramsey, she begins to tell him off. He then asks, “You’re not still diabetic, are you?” He then focuses his purple computery eyes at her insulin pump.
(I can let slide that Ramsey doesn’t understand that people with diabetes on insulin pumps are usually “diabetic” for life. He seems to lack real people skills, and so he may not have read up on how there currently is no cure for Type 1 diabetes.)
Okay, before we reveal what happens to Sheila, and how the writers screwed up, I want to pause to give them at least some kudos. We should assume that Sheila has Type 1 diabetes because of the pump, and in this she is a rare fictional portrayal. First, of all, she is a person of color, and ,Con Air aside, usually people with Type 1 on film are white. Second of all, she is not blandly heroic enough to be worthy of the audience’s pity. Before Ramsey enters, she admits to a fellow inventor that they ripped off the tech invention, and afterwards she doesn’t apologize to Ramsey; instead she verbally rips into him. Look, a fictional person with Type 1 with at least some nuance.
But here is where the writers get into trouble, at least with realism. He says, “Those new computer-controlled insulin pumps are a real lifesaver. Way too much insulin, well that can be lethal.”
Shelia begins to feel woozy and looks down at her insulin pump. Here’s the first error – you can’t see the name of the device, but it’s clearly an Animas pump. Right now, the only pump that could be really labeled “computer control” would be Medtronic’s 670G, which has the ability to control basal insulin rates.
I can let the pump issue slide, however, at least with a knowing smirk. Certainly, computers are involved in the function of other insulin pumps, and this guy does seem to have a real gift for programming. Also, maybe Medtronic’s lawyers were like, “Nope, you are not killing someone off with our pumps.” Animas’ legal team might not have put up much of a fuss because Johnson & Johnson has seemed disinterested in running the pump brand for years; they even recently announced they were discontinuing Animas pumps.
Nope, the real problem is what happens next. Bad guy leaves with a hostage named Tim, and she’s on the floor convulsing in hypoglycemic shock. A police officer and Kid Flash come onto the scene. The cop recognizes what happens, and says she’s in “insulin shock.” Kid Flash must have had some training in this, or maybe he read up on it at superfast speed, because he zooms away and comes back with a hypodermic needle. “Glucose,” he says and inserts the needle into her thigh.
Now here I have to cry foul a bit louder. We never really see the needle, but it doesn’t look like any glucagon pen I’ve ever seen. In fact, it looks like the thinnest needle I’ve ever seen. If Kid Flash zoomed into her kitchen to get the glucagon, it should have been a bulkier pen.
More importantly, with the injection Sheila has a miraculous, some would say speedy, recovery from her severe, severe low. Within seven seconds, she stops gasping for breath and heroically says, “Deacon took him. He took Tim.”
There is no way that glucagon would be that effective. Guides on glucagon kit use says that someone might regain consciousness within 5 to 15 minutes. She feels well enough to give a clue to the police in less than 10 seconds? Nope.
What’s the harm, it’s just a show, right? Yes and no. It’s true that if we can believe humans can go superfast and use their brains to rewire computers, then an argument could be made that the writers can also speed up how quickly glucagon works.
The problem is that too many people already have misconceptions or fears about how glucagon works, enough so that they will call 911 and not even try to treat a severe low at home. This can lead to complications or even prove deadly. If someone only sees this episode, and then is confronted with the more complex glucagon pens or panics because the injection didn’t work as fast, it adds an unfortunate layer of complexity to an already fraught medical situation. It’s unfortunate that the writers didn’t get the mechanics of glucagon action right in their haste.
Thanks to Stacey Simms for tweeting about this last night!
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