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MOBILE, Ala. -- For a guy from Southern California, being on a TV show might seem like the ordinary thing to do. But Dr. Edward Panacek’s path from Southern California student to frequent appearances on the popular television show “Untold Stories of the ER” has been anything but ordinary.
Unlike most of the performers, for example, Panacek actually knows his way around the ER. That expertise may have created a comedy of errors when filming his first show, but he’s offered a dozen stories, acted in numerous episodes and has even served as the medical adviser to the show.
His latest performance, “Learning Pains,” has been airing on TLC and on the Discovery Life Channel this winter.
Path to emergency care
After graduating from the University of California at Los Angeles, Panacek came to Mobile, graduating from the University of South Alabama College of Medicine in 1981 when the school was still young.
Though he loved emergency medicine it wasn’t really a recognized specialty, so he opted for a more traditional path. “I enjoyed the acute care environment, but I was advised not to throw my future career away,” he says. Instead, he also trained in critical care and internal medicine.
Then as now, the fields overlap — the sickness of the patients, the acuity, the need to act quickly.
He trained at the University of California at Davis, then took a faculty position at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio — where his duties also included flying with the helicopter emergency transport program.
In 1992, he went back to UC Davis to direct the emergency medicine residency program — by then a recognized specialty — and spent more than 20 years there, teaching, researching and practicing medicine.
And that’s where he got into the TV gig.
Art imitating medical life
At an emergency medicine conference, a TV team was on hand, asking doctors to share stories of their ER experiences. Panacek stopped by but almost missed his chance. When asked to tell a story, he drew a blank, unable to remember a single fascinating case. He knew that he had plenty of stories — every day his four kids asked to hear the latest from his work. But he couldn’t recall them at that moment. He remembers that he just started to talk — nothing interesting, just talk — but in the nick of time he remembered a good story, and then another and another and another till the team had more than they could use.
They selected two of his stories for that season and two more for the next. When the show is taped, the storyteller records the story, but actors play out the action. Each time, the producers asked whether he wanted to appear on camera but for two years, he turned them down flat. The third year, he decided to give it a whirl.
The episodes were filmed in a former hospital in California that’s no longer in use because of earthquake damage. But it still looks and feels like a real hospital, right down to the equipment, which — though a little old — is otherwise the real stuff.
He went through makeup and green room time with the rest of the cast, all of them dutifully practicing their lines while he just waited, already knowing the story from first to last. It was his story.
When filming started and he walked into the emergency room set, he took charge as he had in real life — shouting orders, telling the others what to do and taking care of the patient in distress — with nary a nod to the carefully developed script. The rest of the cast, meanwhile, was left standing like deer in headlights, without a clue what he might say next or what had become of their cues.
After a quick intervention by the director, Panacek got on the same page as the rest — literally — and the show aired. Time after time he went back to act his stories as well as tell them. “It didn’t pay much,” he quips, “but it sure was fun.”
After a couple more years, he agreed to also be the medical advisor for the show, helping the team make sure stories were authentic.
The show itself took a hiatus for a couple of years but is now back on the air, and Panacek is back to supplying stories.
In 2015 he came back to USA to head the emergency department at the Medical Center, teach, research and develop a new ER residency program.
It’s a great fit, he says, since it allows him to merge his fascination for emergency medicine with his delight in building new programs.
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