She Had a Job, a Boyfriend and a Brain Tumor, Back When Reality TV Was Real

Dr. Marnie Rose

For a moment in time, she was pediatric resident Dr. Marnie Rose at Memorial Hermann in Houston. I got to know her a little during my first, tumultuous year of recovery from ovarian cancer. Dr. Rose was on TV.

Back in those days I was combing the schedule for any reality show that slithered its way to the tube. There among the dreck of the early 2000s (guilty pleasures “Mr. Personality,” et al., I’m looking at you) was the lovely Ms. Rose in “Houston Medical,” an ABC show that featured doctors, patients and their families. The program, shot over the course of a year, ran for six episodes in June and July 2002.

Back then we were still in the hazy dawn of reality TV. Nobody was watching these summer replacements and obscure cable channels, and so nobody was interested in micromanaging the content. Absent were heavy-handed product placements, market-researched casting and sentimentality spreading like an oil slick at every turn.

On “Mr. Personality,” bachelorette Hayley Arp selected men based on just their personalities. You see, they were all wearing full-head masks. As if that wasn’t enough to creep you out, host Monica Lewinsky rounded out the enterprise. One very short season.

Married by America,” too, was quickly snuffed. (Best. Recap. Ever.)

Average Joe” went boffo, clocking in at four whole seasons. This show was no more or less tasteful than the other reality programs I’ve cited. I guess it just found a niche.

Temptation Island” (aka “the Sleaze in Belize“) was something of a hit too, at three seasons. I saw only the first season, but the show lives on at hulu.com. The minute my cancer comes back, I’m gonna park myself in front of the computer and catch up. I do find it ironic that for me the only effective escape from reality is reality TV, the heir apparent to the fun and games once practiced in the Roman Colosseum.

Houston Medical” was a reality show too, but it was cut from different cloth. The drama came not from dating, elimination ceremonies or booze-fueled catfights in oceanside mansions. The drama came from life itself. A reality TV that featured reality — imagine that.

For a show that stuck with me, I don’t remember much beyond a pancreatic cancer patient named Mary Sharkey. Her survival stats were even worse than my own. She showed her doctor a banner friends had made for her. If I recall correctly, it said she was going to “kick pancrea-ass!”

Yeah right, I thought at the time. In point of fact, Sharkey did exactly as her friends predicted.

Reality’s funny that way.

More weird news: Two years ago neurosurgeon Dr. Samuel Hassenbusch died of the very disease he treated, glioblastoma multiforme, a highly lethal form of brain cancer. Dr. Hassenbusch appeared on “Houston Medical” because he was Dr. Marnie Rose’s surgeon.

As for Marnie Rose, she’s the real reason I remember this show. She was in her first year of residency when diagnosed with brain cancer. When “Houston Medical” began filming, she was already both doctor and patient.

I remember Dr. Rose limping as she ran to treat a patient in trouble. I remember her on the phone, chastising someone for upsetting her mother. Dr. Rose was planning to survive. I remember her choking back tears when she found out the biopsy confirmed she had glioblastoma, the same cancer that killed the mother of my young friend Christie Buckner.

I remember Dr. Rose protecting her parents from bad news. To the cameras she explained that her mother would just cancel the planned Passover Seder, and what was the point of that? So on the phone with her mother, Marnie was upbeat, laughing and smiling.

The cameras were rolling when Marnie finally did tell her mother, in the kitchen, after the meal was over. Marnie tried to play down how bad the news was. Her mother wasn’t fooled. Lanie Rose kept her composure, but it was clear she was devastated.

In all six episodes of “Houston Medical,” it seemed to me that Marnie Rose was not the reality show type. There’s a reason for that. Friend Michael Segal wrote: “Even though as a youngster Marnie refused to have her family take many photos or videos of her, she agreed to allow the producers of ‘Houston Medical’ to follow her and take pictures and video tapes of her medical condition before six million viewers. One might ask themselves: ‘Why?’ However, that answer is simple. If it could help even one person suffering from cancer to face the next day, that was worth Marnie’s uneasiness.”

I doubt I’m alone, but I have a feeling the person Marnie meant to help was me. The summer I saw Marnie in “Houston Medical,” I was looking at a 30 percent survival rate, cut to 15 percent due to my aggressive subtype. Understatement of the decade: I was not a happy camper. There’s a lot of bravado and fake positivity in the cancer world. I grew to detest it.

But right away I could tell Marnie Rose didn’t have a phony bone in her body. Her good will was genuine. After one surgery Marnie, giddy as a child, couldn’t wait to tell her joke: “I needed that like I needed a hole in the head!”

What upset me most on the show was Marnie’s boyfriend, who never appeared on camera. After her diagnosis, he dropped her. Then she got a new boyfriend. Her cancer came back, and that man left too.

How hard would it have been to stick around? I wondered. Marnie didn’t have a lot of time to live. Was it too much to ask to give her this one last shot at love?

Apparently so.

Marnie died of complications from glioblastoma multiforme on August 23, 2002, just five weeks after the last episode of “Houston Medical” aired. She was 28 years old.

Her parents set up the Dr. Marnie Rose Foundation. The nonprofit fights for more effective brain cancer treatments and funds a palliative care program for sick kids and their families.

Brain cancer has no known cause. Five-year survival rates for glioblastoma remain low at under ten percent.

After the six episodes of “Houston Medical” aired, the show was canceled. If today the program is anywhere on the Internet, I couldn’t find it.

Marnie Rose was a daughter, a sister, a student, a doctor, a patient, a survivor, a reality TV star. Then she was gone. Monday will mark eight years since she died.

We don’t really know how to frame our lives until after the fact. A cancer diagnosis prompts all affected parties to erase memories that were never actually created in the first place: The wedding, the children, the grandchildren, and plenty of time to figure out what it all means.

Those who loved Marnie Rose — and even those who merely watched her on “Houston Medical” — will have to do the figuring and fighting for her. And they are.

[originally published by Politics Daily in 2010]

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About Quixotic Chick

I write. I take pictures. I survived cancer.
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