Nursing Alumna Cast as Technical Expert on NBC’s Chicago Med
Wanting a career that would allow her to be independent and work from anywhere, Erin Shelley, Ed.D., MA, BSN ‘91, RN, was drawn to the nursing profession. These days, however, she practices nursing as “art imitating life” through her role as a technical expert on the hit NBC television show, Chicago Med.
“My primary role is an operating room nurse. I perform clinical duties alongside the actors so they can focus on the delivery of their lines,” said Shelley. “Most of our surgeries involve exposed beating hearts, breathing lungs, bursting arteries and more, so I also follow the direction of the special effects crew to showcase their hauntingly realistic human anatomy structures.”
Her journey to Chicago Med began when Shelley became neighbors with the show’s technical advisor, Bobbin Bergstrom, RN. Upon learning Shelley was a fellow RN, Bergstrom explained the show casts registered nurses to act as “experts” and invited her to give it a try. Shelley joined the cast during season 3 and is currently filming season 4.
“One of my most challenging scenes was of a physical confrontation that broke out in the operating room,” said Shelley. “I was instructed to get the sharps away from the actors as they struggled. I was afraid I might accidentally stab the show’s leading actor.”
While Chicago Med films July through April, Shelley’s shooting schedule largely depends on the storyline and progress of previous shoots. Filming takes place 5 or 6 days a week, beginning as early as 5 a.m. and may run late into the night.
“No one has a set schedule,” said Shelley. “Generally, it is a 10- to 12-hour day to film just one scene.”
A typical day on set begins with a read-through rehearsal where the actors’ lines are paired with physical actions. Stand-in actors assist the lighting, sound, camera and special effects crew to set the day’s scene. Set-up may take hours, so filming resumes after lunch, which Shelley describes as a lavishly catered Halloween party.
“In the lunchroom, it is not unusual to see cast and “extras” donned in hospital gowns with brains and guts spilling out, actors made up like burn victims, bloody bandages, and gangrenous prosthetic feet,” said Shelley. “You need a strong stomach to enjoy the feast provided.”
Following a dress rehearsal, the cameras begin rolling. Each scene is shot over and over to the satisfaction of the director. Shelly pointed out that special effects are often filmed last as the crew has to reset the scene with fresh props each time. Props such as the basic mannequin used in the surgery scenes can cost $20,000 or more. The great lengths are taken to ensure the medical procedures appear real.
Prior to her television debut, Shelley was a practicing nurse for 28 years. Her career included cardiac care, Tampa General Hospital’s Surgi-Center and work as a clinical liaison and supervisor for a home health company. Most recently, she worked as a medical esthetics consultant and practitioner for 16 years in Chicago.
Shelley described her feelings of being on set as similar to those of working in her previous health care settings.
“I tell myself not to screw up,” said Shelley. “However, there are a few minor discrepancies between a real hospital and a TV hospital. If I screw up ‘playing nurse’ nobody dies or gets sued. It can be edited out.”
She particularly appreciates how nurses are portrayed on the show.
“Chicago Med portrays nurses as heroines. They are bold and strong like Katniss from The Hunger Games; resilient and resourceful like Scarlett O’Hara; disciplined, albeit gentle, like Mary Poppins; and at times angelic like Glinda the Good Witch,” said Shelley. “It’s an honor to advocate nursing in an art form.”
Shelley advises nurses interested in becoming TV technical experts to respond to casting calls for health care professionals. Additionally, she shared that it is helpful to live in close proximity to the film studio as casting agencies tend to call the night before filming to offer the job.
Look for Shelley on NBC’s Chicago Med on Wednesdays at 8 p.m., 7 p.m. Central time.