The path that Dr. Mark Morocco took to emergency medicine began with a near-death experience. It was in January of 1988. He was a working actor, a few years out of Yale, recently married and had just been cast in a play. The night before rehearsals were to start, he and a friend went to dinner in suburban Philadelphia. Driving home on a snowy road, they got into an accident, and he was badly injured.
He suffered two lacerated arteries in his abdomen and nearly bled to death.
“When I woke up in an ICU a day later, everything seemed glaring and white,” he recalls. The surgeon who saved his life was standing over his bed. “He had a big shock of white hair and introduced himself as Dr. White. I thought to myself: ‘Clearly, I have died and gone to heaven.’”
It took a year to recover, after which he returned to New York and the theater. He taught at New York’s famed High School for the Performing Arts, but Hollywood soon beckoned, and he and his wife, Lisa Waltz, whom he met when they played opposite each other on the stage, moved to Los Angeles. Drama, not medicine, still was at the forefront of his mind. He wrote spec scripts and played guest roles on several television shows. But as he continued to pursue his entertainment career, his thoughts drifted back to his close call with death — to the doctor with the shock of white hair and the inherent life-and-death drama of the hospital environment.
“I realized emergency medicine was incredibly compelling and socially meaningful work,” Morocco says. “The people who did it seemed engaged and passionate, the way artists are engaged and passionate.”
And so, the dramatic arc of his life story took a sudden turn: He would become an emergency room physician. He went back to school to complete requirements for medical school, earned his M.D. from USC and completed his residency training at UCLA.
Another dramatic turn occurred while Morocco was in medical school. His literary agent called and put him in touch with another TV writer-turned-physician, Dr. Neil Baer, who was working on a hospital-themed television drama, “ER.” The two hit it off, and when, during Morocco’s last year of residency, there was an opening on the show’s medical consulting staff, he was offered the job. “‘You’re sort of a perfect match,’” Morocco recalls Baer telling him. “You’ve worked with actors. You’ve worked with writers. You’re interested in film.”
His job would be to make sure that the actors, prop makers, writers and producers on the hit series got the science exactly right. How could he turn down something like that? Morocco went to his UCLA residency directors and talked with them about this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to help shape the accurate portrayal of emergency room medicine for a mass audience. “I don’t want to drop out of my residency,” he told his supervisors. “Can we figure out a way that I can do this?”
Indeed, there was something they could do — extend his residency.
“I was pretty much working 24/7 for a good year-and-a-half,” Morocco says. He worked full-time on the TV show Mondays through Fridays, and he did shifts in the hospital on weekends and during the show’s hiatus. Residency is difficult enough; this combo was grueling. But the challenge of the television work coupled with the excitement of his hospital training energized him. He spent five seasons on “ER” consulting, supervising and eventually writing.
Some 15 years later, Morocco trains new generations of ER physicians but still sometimes finds himself facing a camera. He’s often called upon to speak about medical issues and breaking medical news stories. When a MetroLink commuter train and a freight train collided in the San Fernando Valley in 2008, he spoke with the media about UCLA’s role in providing emergency treatment to injured passengers. He has been a medical consultant for Fox News and the Associated Press, and he wrote a series of columns for the Los Angeles Times for five years.
And there still are times when he collides with the life on stage that he left behind. Several years ago, he was in Philadelphia to give the commencement address to the graduating class at Drexel University College of Medicine. As he walked along Philadelphia's Avenue of the Stars past the Wilma Theater on his way to the ceremony, he glanced through the glass doors into the atrium. There, among the collection of images from past shows on the lobby walls, was a huge full-face close-up of him from a 1986 production of “Three Guys Naked From the Waist Down.” “It was truly a bizarre juxtaposition — an out-of-body moment seeing my face up there from a different life and different dreams,” he says, with a smile.
It’s another story to go into the mix, a lifetime of experiences that Morocco says have given him a unique perspective and skills that he can apply both as a clinician and an educator.
“I strive to teach that the performance-art of medicine — what a doctor says and how he or she says it — is nearly as important as the researched and evidence-based content,” he says. It is an “odd niche” that he fills among the medical school faculty, “but it is one that is really fun and really rewarding.”