As hospitals across Southern California run low on supplies for front-liners fighting the coronavirus outbreak, a Filipina American medical professional is using her connections to TV shows for donations to fill those needs.
Mel Oliver, a cardiovascular perfusionist and emergency medical technician in Los Angeles, has helped secure boxes of masks, gloves and other gear from Hollywood sets she’s consulted on, including HBO’s “Big Little Lies” and NBC’s “This Is Us.”
In mid-March, Oliver received a call from the prop master for “This Is Us,” who was collecting equipment from the studio and asked if she could recommend a hospital that needed them the most.
Inspired by the efforts of ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy” to donate their supplies to local hospitals, she then reached out to other prop departments she’s worked with. It led her to a massive collection at Independent Studio Services (ISS), a prop supplier for TV and film productions. Her contact on “Big Little Lies” has also stepped up to sew reusable cloth masks.
“All these people are coming together and it’s really nice to know they’re thinking of us. Sometimes as a health care worker, you don’t get to think about that stuff and…especially for the people who are on the front lines in the emergency room, they shouldn’t have to worry where their next mask is coming from,” Oliver told the Asian Journal.
Though the pandemic is the current issue at hand, Oliver has been collecting excess and unused medical supplies, such as scrubs and gloves, from TV productions over the years.
The donations are used for medical missions to underserved island communities under Isla Medical Foundation, which she helped start with two friends after taking a trip to Siargao, the surfing capital of the Philippines.
“I’d go back to Siargao and each time, the locals would tell me about the issues they’re having with the health care system,” Oliver said. “I’d been doing medical missions for other organizations and in my head, I thought: ‘Why not do what I do for other countries for my own country?’ We wanted to give back to the community that gives so much to us whenever we’re there visiting. I’m thankful ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ would think of me every time they had extra stuff.”
The Pinay’s foray into Hollywood started 10 years ago when she was still working at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and someone from “Grey’s Anatomy” reached out to the hospital looking for a perfusionist to consult on an episode.
“I took it and worked with them for that one episode,” Oliver said. “I thought it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and as the years passed, they’d ask me to come back for like two episodes a season, then it became five episodes. So basically, whenever they had a cardiac surgery scene, they’d have me come in and consult with them for the perfusion part.”
Working with the medical drama rippled into referrals for other shows; the most recent ones include FOX’s “9-1-1” and Amazon’s “Goliath.”
She’s also been a medical technical advisor since the first season of “This Is Us,” a drama following the Pearson family through the decades starring Milo Ventimiglia, Mandy Moore and Sterling Brown. She goes on set during the days of filming medical scenes, whether it’s a death or birth, and helps review scripts if needed. She also stepped in front of the camera as a nurse in one episode.
“I moved to LA definitely not trying to get into the entertainment industry, but I’m lucky that I did because it’s super fun,” said Oliver, who’s originally from Ohio. “It’s a different challenge from cardiac surgery.”
The Hollywood projects led to starting her own company, Reel Medical Consulting, which also rents out medical equipment and provides real health care professionals for on-camera scenes.
The profits from the various gigs are then donated to medical charities, such as Mending Kids, CardioStart, Surfer’s Medical Association, and her own foundation.
In the past week alone, Oliver helped organize and distribute car trunks full of resources to hospitals in the LA area and is continuing to seek more donations.
She also called on those in the community with sewing skills to help make masks or spearhead their own collection drives.
“Even if it’s just one or two masks, that’s one or two masks for someone. At my hospital right now, I’m allowed to wear one mask a day. If someone donates two masks, that’s two days worth for me and that goes a long way,” Oliver said.