Was I duped by a writer for “Grey’s Anatomy”? Now there’s a question I never thought I’d ask myself.
This bizarre saga began in early 2018, when I was researching a book on gender bias in women’s health. An advertisement for an upcoming episode of the long-running ABC The medical drama piqued my curiosity because it was about a woman having a heart attack. I had just interviewed several women who nearly died after their heart symptoms were labeled as panic attacks – an all too common scenario.
This point was made by Martha Gulati, MD, now a cardiologist at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, when I interviewed her for the heart disease chapter. “As women, we should be outraged,” she told me. I’m stressed. Of course, I’m stressed! We are all stressed. Why aren’t these questions asked of men?
In the excellent episode “Grey’s Anatomy”, the character Miranda Bailey, MD (played by Chandra Wilson), chief of surgery at the fictional Gray Sloan Memorial Hospital, walks into the emergency department of another hospital and states that she is doing a heart attack. The story illustrates how a woman (especially a black woman) with heart symptoms can be abused when her physical symptoms are related to stress or anxiety. On the show, after the intervention of a psychiatrist, Bailey says to him, “Doctor, with all due respect to your field of medicine, I need you to understand that with every second we waste, I’m losing heart muscle.”
I was very interested in speaking with the credited author, Elisabeth Finch, and requested an interview through the publicity department of ABC. In the past, when I sought to chat with people from TV, it usually happened within a few days. This time, I felt like there was something going on with the writer that would delay or maybe even prevent the interview. I didn’t know anything about Finch, so I googled her and found a moving 2016 essay she wrote for She to have a rare – and deadly – form of bone cancer, which has been misdiagnosed.
When we finally spoke on the phone, I was aware that I didn’t want to wear Finch down, having read that she had spent many hours in clinical trials and chemotherapy. During our conversation, I asked her what inspired her to write the heart attack episode and she said, “When we talked about doing this episode, one of the things we were really interested in exploring was how hard it can sometimes be for a woman to hear in a medical setting….Throughout the history of our show, Dr. Bailey is so loud and so powerful and so articulate and so passionate and so successful in achieving everything she needs or wants. Seeing her in an environment where she can’t get the care she needs is something that I found really impactful.”
When I wrote about Finch, I observed that her own medical ordeal added further meaning to the spell she had created for Bailey: “Elisabeth had a personal attachment to writing a story of misdiagnosis, because she lived it when an eminent orthopedic surgeon ruled out her chronic back pain…. In a moving play for She magazine, Elisabeth wrote that the doctor called her impatient and emotional: “It never occurred to me that being ‘woman’ was perhaps the most dangerous label of all.” “
After the interview, I sent Finch his quotes to review, along with a release form required by the editor. When the book was published in 2019, I sent Finch a signed copy, thanking her for her help and wishing her good health and happiness. (Everyone else I interviewed provided their emails. Finch didn’t. The only way to contact her was by ABC.)
As I was working on the paperback edition of my book in 2021, I Googled it again, fearful of finding an obituary. Many people with chondrosarcoma, the form of cancer she says she has, do not survive beyond 5 years; Finch has claimed to be sick since 2012. The only thing that came up in my search was her active Twitter account, indicating that she was miraculously beating the odds.
Then, this month of May, vanity lounge released “Scene Stealer: The True Lies of Elisabeth Finch, Part 1.” Journalist Evgenia Peretz exposes allegations that Finch fabricated his cancer diagnosis, along with a series of other extreme fits. Finch’s She column was her magic ticket to being hired by superstar producer Shonda Rhimes.
“Everyone in Finchie’s world, as they called her, believed she was that miracle. Not only was chondrosarcoma unheard of in someone her age, but she was incredibly living with it,” Peretz writes. “She showed up so bravely in the Grey’s Anatomy writers room, a scarf over her bald head. And she was so inspiring to everyone around her…expert.”
I’m angry at Finch’s alleged deceptions. Obviously, no one likes to be fooled. (It appears on two pages of my book.) But that’s not what upsets me so much. A recurring theme in my book is that sick women are often not heard or believed. If it’s true that Finch lied, I’m afraid his high-profile duplicity will sow doubt, making life harder for women struggling to get compassionate medical care.
I’ll never know what Finch was thinking if she had, in fact, made up so many facets of her life story. Years ago, when I was in journalism school, one of my professors advised me, “If your mom says she loves you, look at that. I neglected to follow that advice with Finch, and it’s my fault. I assumed that Finch had been controlled by She and ABCand you know what they say about assuming…
I get why no one doubted her cancer journey – who would lie about having a fatal disease? According to Peretz, Finch was granted time off whenever she requested to participate in treatments and clinical trials at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota.
What I don’t understand is why Finch’s co-workers apparently didn’t question the extreme and growing crises plaguing her. Peretz writes of the series of calamities that befell Finch, “some of which she chronicled for the world, some of which she spoke of in chosen company”. There was a doomed pregnancy, a failing kidney, a friend murdered in the Tree of Life Synagogue mass shooting (Finch claimed to have helped clean up body parts), an abusive brother who attempted to commit suicide. Peretz’s article calls into question whether any of these things actually happened.
How was it possible that no one at “Grey’s Anatomy” saw these disasters as red flags that something was wrong and that Finch needed some sort of mental health intervention?
Finch no longer works for the series. The She essay that elevated his television career has disappeared from the magazine’s website. ABC sent me this statement from production company Shondaland:
“Grey’s Anatomy prides itself on telling painful, emotional and often difficult medical stories, many of which are inspired by the first-hand experiences of our writers, doctors and consultants. We have always worked hard to tell these stories in the most truthful way , the most empathetic and compassionate. , and we never had any reason to suspect that any personal story we were told was untrue.”
Perhaps the new season of “Grey’s Anatomy” will include an episode about factitious disorder, defined as a mental illness in which someone deceives others by appearing ill. However, the Mayo Clinic notes that this is not the same as “inventing medical problems for practical benefit.”
I sincerely hope Finch gets the help she needs.
Emily Dwass has written about health and culture for numerous publications. She is the author of Female Diagnosis: How Medical Bias Endangers Women’s Health. An updated paperback edition was released in February 2022.