William & Mary

English Alum Inspires Hit Show 'House'

As a medical school professor, Emmy award-winning news broadcaster, published author and inspiration for the TV show ‘House,’ Lisa Sanders, class of ’79, wears many hats. The one that she feels most inextricably tied to, however, is tweed and of the deerstalker variety.

“What I like about ‘House,’ and what I think is important for all doctors, is the importance of observation,” Sanders said. “I liken a diagnostic doctor’s role to that of Sherlock Holmes — I don’t think I’m giving up any secrets in saying that that’s the basis for the show. It’s the ability to notice the unusual— and then discover the cause— that makes a good doctor.”

Currently working at the Yale University School of Medicine, Sanders points back to this love of storytelling, action and hard work as being instrumental to her current success. In fact, it was exactly this love of writing and telling a good mystery which got ‘House’ on the air in the first place.

“I had been writing a monthly column called ‘Diagnosis’ for the New York Times Magazine,” Sanders said. “Diagnosis,” which Sanders still finds the time to write, presents actual medical procedures in a narrative form in order to give readers an insight into the processes involved with diagnosing real patients. “One day I was approached by television producer Paul Attanasio. He told me that he had been reading my columns, that he was looking for a new show, and he wanted to base it on my series of articles,” she said.

After sitting down with Sanders and discussing the possibilities for the show, the producers decided to make a pilot episode and try to sell it to a network. The rest, as they say, is history – or at least for the show.

Sanders’ own background reads with its own Hollywood slant; her story having a plot just as circuitous and unpredictable as any written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Newly graduated from the College in 1979, and laying claim to little more than an English major and a passion for journalism, Sanders found a job working with ABC News. Through the next few years she cycled through all of the major networks, clawing her way up through the competitive ranks of broadcast journalism. All of this culminated when she received an Emmy for her production work with CBS News. An award such as this defines a career, establishes credibility, and marks one with a certain respect within their industry. So, did Sanders flaunt this newfound position of admiration, bending the ramifications of the award to suit her needs? No – rather, she got bored and left.

Sanders cites several reasons for leaving the broadcast journalism industry when she did; chief among them the newly discovered notion that, if they were packaged and made up correctly, news programs could be huge engines for turning a profit, as well as a dwindling passion to work in the newsroom environment. This fundamental shift in journalistic motives led to a spiritual souring concerning the occupation which had been her livelihood for so many years since her graduation.

“It’s nice to think that you’re not among the forces of evil,” Sanders said. “But more importantly for me, you have to have a job that you find fun and interesting. People fall out of love with their job, but by that time they’re too afraid, or they have too many responsibilities, to get out.”

Which is not to say that Sanders didn’t face adversity when she decided to change careers – she did. Once it became clear that she couldn’t stay at CBS and be happy with herself, Sanders decided to pursue medicine, as it had previously been her favorite topic to report on.

She soon found herself studying for a year at the Post-Baccalaureate Pre-Med program at Columbia University, before enrolling at the Yale School of Medicine as the oldest member of her class. She graduated in 1997 and since has stayed on as a member of the faculty specializing in nutrition and obesity.
Looking back on the path that led to her current position, Sanders describes her old aspirations in humble terms.

“I had no idea what I wanted to do when I got out of school. I knew I wanted to live in New York, but past that – nothing,” she said.

Sanders stress that, for the moment, she’s doing exactly what she wants to do. Her schedule overflows with obligations – she wakes up at 4 a.m. every morning so that she can work on a book before she has to send the children to school at 7 a.m. – and yet she refuses to drop any of them. As long as they’re interesting and exciting, she says that she doesn’t want to let anything slide.

“Following your passion is the most important thing,” she said, broadening her subject to include college students. “Some people graduate from college and they’ve never pursued anything that they actually care about. It’s sad, but I see interviewees who have never tried to do anything but fulfill other peoples’ expectations. You really have to let your own passions be sparked. Curiosity doesn’t come all at once, it comes in tiny little pinches. If you never follow those feelings, if you can’t recognize them within yourself and pursue them, then you’ll never figure out what you really should be doing.”

Does this mean that Sanders could leave medicine at the drop of a hat if it ever loses the spark that attracted her in the first place? Yes, of course it does, but with her approach you can trust that no matter what she’s doing, she’ll find it exhilarating and she’ll take on each day with the vigor of one that loves life.

Really, my dear reader, it’s elementary.

Author:  Brad Clark
Source:  The Flat Hat, 25 April 2007, http://www.flathatnews.com/news/836/alum-inspires-hit-show-house.