Five months into her recovery, Jacqueline Groves was grabbing dinner with a friend when the crash came hurtling back into her life.
The New Orleans artist was not watching “Nightwatch,” the popular reality show that chronicles the heroics of the city’s first responders. But it didn’t take long for her to learn from her roommate, via text message, that the harrowing bicycle crash she survived in October had been featured in the eighth episode of the A&E series.
Because Groves, 28, had not consented to being filmed, the producers blurred her face from the images that showed her strapped to a gurney and loaded into an ambulance. The emergency medical technician narrating the footage, however, described the details of the wreck and even discussed the woman’s medical condition.
The scene, which showed Groves’ mangled bicycle, omitted much of the trauma of the crash but made clear the victim had been struck by a motorcycle and landed under a vehicle — a relatively unusual set of circumstances that allowed friends and acquaintances to identify the wounded woman on the stretcher immediately.
Groves said she had assumed her footage would not be aired at all without her permission. Instead, she played an unwilling part in a production that she described as “the last thing I needed.”
“It’s just this added obstacle and strange thing I’ve been dealing with, and I don’t even know how I’m supposed to feel about it,” she said. “Who would have thought there would be this on top of all the craziness?”
City leaders have lauded “Nightwatch” as a publicity boon that has boosted morale among local first responders and showcased the life-or-death stakes they encounter on every shift.
“One of the favorite sentiments from the show, by everyone who has seen it, is that work becomes family,” City Councilwoman Stacy Head said during a council meeting this month. The show, she added, has “brought national awareness and incredibly good feelings” about the work of New Orleans firefighters, police officers and Emergency Medical Services workers.
But Groves’ experience raises thorny questions about patient privacy and the intersection between medicine and reality television.
Paige Devries, a friend of Groves who also was involved in the crash, said she was appalled that a member of the television crew not only was allowed into the ambulance with her and Groves but made something of a “sales pitch” there in requesting their consent to be a part of the show. At that point, Groves had just regained consciousness and was having trouble remembering where she lived, Devries said.
“I told her now was really not a good time to be asking me these questions,” Devries said, recalling an exchange that took place within a half-hour or so of the crash.
“The paramedics are in an incredible position of protecting people when they’re most vulnerable. I see the ‘Nightwatch’ people as being opportunists, but the city of New Orleans did us a disservice by letting them take advantage of us.”
No comment from city
Efforts last week to reach A&E and the producers of “Nightwatch” were unsuccessful. Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s office did not respond to repeated requests for comment, leaving unanswered questions about the access the television crew has to patients receiving emergency treatment.
New Orleans EMS announced on Twitter in March that the show has been renewed for a second season.
The producers have applied for state film tax credits for both seasons of “Nightwatch” under a generous subsidy program in which taxpayers cover 30 percent of a production’s local costs. The estimated total budget of Season 1 was listed as $4 million, about a third of which was expected to be spent in Louisiana.
“As of today, neither (season) has received any film tax credits, nor have we received an audit verifying their eligible expenditures,” said Chris Stelly, director of the state’s entertainment incentives.
The city in 2013 signed a cooperative endeavor agreement with 44 Blue Productions allowing the production company to film the activities of first responders with certain restrictions, including, among others, that taping would not interfere with EMS operations or jeopardize the integrity of crime scenes.
The city decided that the filming of “Nightwatch” constitutes “a valid public purpose because of the positive effects that the series will have with respect to public perception” of New Orleans EMS, the agreement says. That value, the agreement says, is equivalent to the value of the filming rights.
“We’re bringing recognition to our otherwise unrecognized professions,” Holly Monteleone, the EMT who narrated the footage of Groves’ treatment, told the City Council this month. Monteleone refers to herself in her Twitter profile as a “rock star paramedic at New Orleans EMS” who stars in the show “Nightwatch.”
While the “Nightwatch” producers maintain editorial control, city officials are entitled to view the shows before they air and may request modifications if they identify “an issue of operational or employee safety and/or security,” according to the agreement.
It’s unclear whether the city has taken any steps to protect privacy, particularly in cases like Groves’ in which a patient does not waive her right to confidentiality.
Issues of privacy
Legal experts offered differing opinions on whether New Orleans EMS, in Groves’ case, violated any privacy provisions of the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA.
Some noted that the “Nightwatch” crew enjoys the same First Amendment protections afforded to news photographers documenting the work of first responders that occurs in public. Producers appear to be in far more ambiguous territory — ethically, if not legally — when they film a patient without her consent inside a medical setting such as an ambulance.
“There could be a HIPAA issue for the ambulance crew but not for the TV crew,” said Robert Field, a professor at Drexel University School of Law. “HIPAA applies to health care providers and insurers, not to the general public that receives medical information.”
Stephen Angelette, a Dallas lawyer who specializes in health care issues, said that when a patient refuses to authorize the release of protected medical information, health care providers have an obligation to ensure that no “individually identifiable information is shown about that patient.” He said he would advise clients against allowing a film crew into an ambulance without the patient’s permission.
“As they follow the ambulance is something of a gray area, as it is more of an incidental disclosure to the public,” Angelette said. “But when they enter the treatment setting, it creates a different situation for which patient authorization must be provided because they are unnecessary for the patient’s care.”
The “Nightwatch” scene showing how Groves was treated includes a snippet in which Monteleone is seen talking to Groves inside the ambulance, telling her she lost consciousness and ended up under a car. Part of the patient’s face is shown briefly but does not appear to be identifiable.
“She’s gonna need a head CT,” Monteleone tells “Nightwatch” viewers in a later interview, “to make sure she doesn’t have any bleeding on her brain.”
Monteleone’s suspicions were correct. Groves, in fact, did have a brain bleed and remained hospitalized for about a week. It turned out she had a broken pelvis as well.
Sound of a motorcycle
The crash happened about 10:45 p.m. on Oct. 15, a night that had begun on a far more pleasant note. Groves, who moved to New Orleans about a year and a half ago, had just gotten a job and had gone out for pizza and billiards to celebrate.
She was biking home with Devries through Faubourg Marigny on Elysian Fields Avenue when she noticed some police lights around Dauphine Street.
“The last thing I remember is hearing a motorcycle behind me,” she said.
According to State Police, a drunk motorcyclist named Jonathan Farthing, 27, had been speeding away from the police and lost control of his motorcycle while braking and trying to avoid hitting Groves on her bicycle. The motorcycle fell onto its right side and struck Groves, sending both Farthing and Groves about 100 feet from the point of impact, according to a crash report. They both ended up under parked vehicles.
At Interim LSU Hospital, Farthing told an investigating trooper that he “had too much to drink and did something stupid.” Among other counts, he was booked with DWI, aggravated flight from an officer, illegal carrying of a concealed weapon, reckless operation and three counts of vehicular negligent injuring. One of the injuring counts stemmed from a passenger he had on the back of the motorcycle at the time of the crash.
“My accident was a big deal in the biking community, and a lot of people had heard about it, even if they didn’t know me,” Groves said.
Groves has made significant progress medically and considers herself fortunate to have survived the crash. She is cycling again and, to the surprise of some who ask, has no immediate plans to move away from the city.
The “Nightwatch” ordeal, however, has left her feeling violated at a time when she’d rather focus on other battles. Perhaps fittingly, the title of episode that features her crash is “Caught you, by surprise.”
“I’m still very much hung up on the fact that they aired it because I can only imagine that people who are less involved than I am are getting taken advantage of by them,” Groves said.
“I want the EMTs to feel special. I want them to know that their job is really, really important and that I really appreciate it,” she added. “But I don’t think that A&E is doing this well. I think they’re actually detracting from it.”
Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.