New Toronto-set series 'Nurses' to debut with fictional van attack storyline

TORONTO — The first episode of new Toronto-set drama series "Nurses" may look chillingly familiar.

As a group of five young nurses start their first day at the fictional St. Mary's hospital, news breaks of a nearby terrorist attack in which a white van crashed into pedestrians on the sidewalk.

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Later, one of the nurses realizes a van-attack patient is the suspected perpetrator who says misogynistic, white-nationalist viewpoints while being treated, highlighting the ethical struggles frontline health workers can face on the job.

Series creator Adam Pettle says the episode is loosely inspired by the April 2018 van attack that killed 10 and injured 16 in Toronto, and inspired by similar incidents in other cities around the world.

But he put a fictional spin on it and avoided showing the actual attack onscreen so he wouldn't trigger viewers.

Pettle says the premiere, airing Jan. 6 on Global, is meant to portray an event that brings the new nursing team and the community together, and showcase the heroism of frontline health workers.

"I wouldn't want anyone to feel like we were exploiting it or using it, so I did try to use it as the ... incident of the episode but not focus on the horror if it," Pettle said in a recent phone interview.

Pettle said he was also inspired by an article written by a Jewish nurse who treated the wounds of the gunman in a shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh in October 2018.

"It's just a beautiful piece of writing about having to care for him, and how that's not a professional's job to be judge and jury, about how difficult it is and how complicated it is."

Vancouver actress Tiera Skovbye, who stars as nurse Grace Knight, says the episode brought back memories of calling her best friend who lived in Toronto at the time of the attack to make sure she was OK.

"To get that in the very first script was a lot to take on," Skovbye said.

"But it just goes to show that as a nurse you never really know what you're going to get any given day, and that no matter what, the care of the patients come first and you have to put all other aspects of it aside."

Pettle has long been immersed in hospital settings.

The Toronto-based writer/executive producer's dad is an obstetrician and his stepmother is a nurse, and he has fond memories of hanging out at the hospital nurses' station as a child.

At age 21, the theatre graduate underwent surgery and treatment for thyroid cancer, which spurred him to write about such subject matter in his first play.

Pettle has since explored the medical world in several projects, including the Canadian show "Saving Hope," on which he was an executive producer.

On the ninth episode of "Nurses," a patient undergoes one of the treatments Pettle went through 25 years ago.

Pettle hopes the series will bring a new element to the medical drama genre through the lens of nurses "who are usually relegated to background performers in hospital shows," he said.

"With the focus being on nurses, it's less about medicine and the high-stakes surgeries of it," said Pettle, "and it's more about the psychology and spirituality and families, and the stories are more domestic than they are medical."

"Nurses" has already been renewed for a second season.

Pettle shot the show in Mississauga, Ont., and Hamilton, and consulted with health-care professionals to add authenticity and accuracy to the script. He also had nurse consultants on set to help the actors.

The other core group of young nurses are played by Canadian actors Natasha Calis, Jordan Johnson-Hinds, Sandy Sidhu, and Donald MacLean Jr.

With its blend of serious and sudsy stories, "Nurses" will no doubt draw comparisons to the long-running American hospital drama "Grey's Anatomy."

Like "Grey's," "Nurses" also has a local watering hole where the characters go to unwind after their shifts.

But "Nurses" has a different tone and younger characters than "Grey's," said Skovbye, who's happy with the comparisons.

"'Grey's Anatomy' is a show that's been on for what, a million seasons at this point?" she said with a laugh, "and people love it and there's a market for a show like that.

"So if we're being compared to a show that was as successful as 'Grey's Anatomy, then I think that's great."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 2.

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