ABC’s Bob Hearts Abishola features a strong nurse character from Nigeria
The sitcom’s first season (2019-20) focused on the relationship between the Nigerian-born nurse Abishola and Bob, the head of a small Detroit sock company. Culture clash was the main theme, but Abishola was also shown to be a tough, skilled patient advocate, notably in helping Bob’s mother recover from a stroke. A downside was Abishola’s obsession with her tween son becoming a physician.
April 2020 – ABC’s Bob Hearts Abishola features the head of a small but successful Detroit sock company and the Nigerian-born nurse he meets at the hospital after having a heart attack. The first season establishes their romance, as each gets to know the other’s wacky family and colleagues. The sitcom is mostly interested in the comic possibilities of the ensuing culture clash, as well as in showing what a critical asset immigrants are to U.S. society (the end credits show a red hat saying “Immigrants Make America Great”). But the show also includes a generally helpful portrayal of nursing, with some caveats. Abishola herself is a tough, conscientious, and knowledgeable nurse who displays strong advocacy and a holistic view of care. That is evident in her efforts to improve Bob’s overall health, as well as that of his mother, who has a stroke that Abishola authoritatively diagnoses over the phone. Abishola ends up providing her home care, and she impressively handles this difficult patient, providing good physical and psychosocial care during her long recovery. However, the show does not always present nurses as serious, autonomous professionals. That is especially the case in the occasional portrayals of Abishola’s hospital colleague Gloria, who at times seems indifferent to patient care and can apparently be bribed to give out a colleague’s personal information. Even Abishola at times appears too deferential to physicians, as when she apologizes after informing a surgeon that a drug he has prescribed will endanger a patient. And occasionally there is some nurse stereotyping, in standard sitcom style. But perhaps the most unfortunate enduring issue is Abishola’s obsession with having her young son become a physician, a recurring theme that shows she sees medicine as superior to her own profession of nursing. Yes, we understand that medicine’s high status and compensation might appeal to a recent immigrant, and indeed to anyone. But the show never says those are the reasons; the impression left is that medicine is simply better. On the whole, though, Abishola is a strong and skilled nurse character. We thank show creators Chuck Lorre, Eddie Gorodetsky, Al Higgins, and Gina Yashere.
Bob Hearts Abishola is a sitcom, and it’s not especially interested in Abishola’s clinical practice at the hospital, but the first season still portrays her nursing care. At times she displays significant health knowledge, a holistic approach, and strong advocacy skills, although not always the best diplomatic skills. In the series premiere, Bob awakens in a hospital room after his heart attack, and there is Abishola, with a prominent “RN” label on her ID badge. She informs him that he has had three stents put in, and when he asks if that is a lot, she says for a man his size, no. Despite his condition, he immediately begins to banter, but she stays professional and no-nonsense. She helps Bob to the toilet to urinate, but he has trouble. Apparently to motivate a strong effort, she asks if he would like to have her insert a catheter in his penis. Clearly he would not, so Abishola sings him a song to help him, one that she says worked with her son. It works here too. Bob is smitten.
Later, after Bob’s release, he returns to the hospital looking for Abishola. She is off duty, but Bob bribes her nurse colleague Gloria to give him Abishola’s address with $100, half of which Gloria later offers to Abishola. A later scene shows the two nurses doing compressions on a coding patient, while a physician does perfunctory defibrillations, but soon gives up and leaves abruptly. Gloria finds this inadequate, but neither nurse makes any serious effort to change the plan for the patient. Abishola calls the patient’s family to break the news of his death, and she tries to do that sensitively, although it’s not easy since Bob has arrived and keeps trying to get her attention. It’s good to show Abishola doing this important work—a rarity for TV nurses.
Abishola’s nursing shines most brightly in the plotline about Bob’s mother’s stroke. In the sixth episode, Abishola and Bob go on a dinner date to a steak house. She forbids him from having steak or fries at dinner because he just had a heart attack, so he is left with salmon and some vegetable that he does not enjoy. On their way home, Bob’s sister Christina calls to report that their mother Dottie is having a health crisis. On speaker, Abishola authoritatively asks Christina to perform tests on Dottie, including asking her to identify an object and lift her arms. Abishola quickly determines that Dottie is having a stroke, then directs Christina to call 911 for an ambulance to take Dottie to Abishola’s hospital, which has a comprehensive stroke program. Abishola acts as a liaison with hospital staff and comforts the distraught Bob. This is an impressive display of Abishola’s knowledge as well as her quick and competent action in a crisis.
It doesn’t end there. In episode 7, Dottie returns home and Bob hires Abishola to be her home care nurse, something Abishola has mentioned to him that she sometimes does. Abishola seems very competent in her interactions with Dottie. She provides good psychosocial care, trying to feed Dottie, and not losing her composure when the distressed Dottie throws utensils. But when Dottie suggests that Abishola is after the family’s money, Abishola calmly withdraws, telling Bob that his mother would prefer a different nurse. Bob understands that this is his mother’s fault, so he takes Dottie to Abishola’s apartment to apologize, implying that he will park her in a nursing home if she does not do that and accept Abishola as his nurse. Dottie eventually does so, in a tearful scene, and Abishola is very understanding and forgiving.
In later episodes, Abishola continues to display strong skills in caring for Dottie. In episode 8 she calmly but firmly denies Dottie’s requests for salt and alcohol while she is recovering. Abishola trains Bob and his siblings to take care of Dottie by directing them in how to carry and place her in the wheelchair, at which they fail pretty miserably. Abishola also comes by to check on Dottie even when she does not have to; they have formed a bond.
Episode 12 includes a scene in which Abishola is providing physical therapy, trying to get Dottie to move her arm and leg on the paralyzed side, with comic results. Professionals may wonder why Abishola is using a small weight when the patient can’t seem to move her arm at all, but most viewers will probably not notice. They will likely notice that Abishola effectively manages her patient’s frustration and provides incentives for good performance, in the form of a half beer afterwards. And in episode 20, Abishola drives the reluctant Dottie to a neurologist visit. There, Dottie meets an older man in a similar situation. Abishola encourages Dottie, a widow, to at least be open to interaction with him. She has some apparent success, although Dottie is abusive and tells Abishola to stick to nursing. Abishola might have explained that encouraging social interaction is nursing care.
One misstep within the stroke plotline occurs in episode 14, when Abishola helps motivate Dottie to go back to work at the sock company, where she remains the majority shareholder. That appears to be good nursing care, although the episode presents Dottie as a difficult manager. Abishola accompanies her, and to the chagrin of Bob and his two troubled siblings, Abishola becomes Dottie’s “executive assistant.” That involves ordering the siblings around and seeming to lose sight of the fact that she is supposed to be nursing. Bob’s brother protests, noting that just recently Abishola was giving Dottie sponge baths, meaning she is unqualified for such a role at the sock company. Dottie tells him to watch out or soon the sponge baths will be his job. This plotline damages nursing in at least two ways. First, it shows Abishola abandoning her nursing role for the lark of executive assisting, as if nursing her post-stroke patient was no serious matter. In addition, the sponge-bath comment reinforces the image of nursing as a low-skilled, low-status job that would not prepare a person to act as assistant to a manager at a small sock company. Bob’s brother is not a respected character, but no one including Abishola really pushes back on his comment. In fact, an RN would be overqualified for such an assistant position.
I am glad that you did not kill the patient
Another plotline that is mixed for nursing appears in the fourth episode, when Abishola catches a physician error. At this point, Abishola is upset because she has temporarily ended things with Bob, and this may explain why she does not handle the physician situation in an ideal way. In the plotline, Abishola and an apparent surgeon are with a patient when the surgeon tells the patient that he will be receiving nitroglycerine. Abishola explains politely, but directly and in front of the patient, that the patient is also on sildenafil, and together the drugs could lead to a bad reaction. The patient becomes concerned. The annoyed surgeon asks Abishola outside and says correcting him in front of a patient undermines faith in the hospital. Abishola notes that the drug interaction could cause severe arrhythmia. Surgeon: “I know that!” Abishola apologizes repeatedly, and tries to be deferential, but when he keeps at her, says “I am glad that you did not kill the patient. And I am sorry.” Later, Gloria says Abishola has violated the key rule of not making waves, and the surgeon may make a complaint. Gloria claims many Filipina nurses would be happy to take her job; she says they are great nurses and some of them were physicians back home! Abishola seems genuinely concerned. Later, Abishola goes to the physician and apologizes, saying it was wrong to correct him in front of the patient. He says he has no choice but to report her. Growing desperate, Abishola tells him that if he does, she will need to appear before a “review board,” where she will be forced to explain the situation with the drugs – presumably meaning he too will get in trouble for giving poor care. This appears to back him off. Later, she has occasion to tell the patient, “You’re welcome” – meaning for saving his life.
This is great in some ways. First, Abishola has the expertise to know about the potential drug interaction. She is also seen performing the key nursing task of checking physician prescriptions, and then she has the courage to intervene, potentially saving the patient’s life, as the episode makes clear. She should have been more diplomatic and consulted privately with the physician, rather than embarrassing him in front of the patient. But afterwards, she is too deferential, and the notion that she would have to appear before some “review board” seems unlikely. To the extent the idea is that physicians can’t be corrected directly at all, it is true that too many nurses still feel they must do so indirectly because they are underpowered, but this harms patients. Gloria’s commentary suggests that nurses should just keep their heads down even when patient lives are at stake. Of course, she is not necessarily speaking for the show; it comes closer to endorsing Abishola’s approach. But it presents that approach as something anomalous that Abishola just barely manages to get away with, rather than part of the obligation of every nurse to check for and prevent health care errors. Then there are Gloria’s views about nurses from the Philippines, which the show does not question, beyond the simple fact that they are offered by Gloria. We are not aware of a basis to view those nurses as more skilled than nurses from Nigeria, nor to believe that being physicians would enable them to provide better nursing.
Finally, there is Abishola’s obsession with her academically advanced son, Dele, becoming a physician, which the season returns to again and again. In episode 1, Abishola says she does not want Dele to join his school track team, because it would interfere with him studying hard and becoming a physician. She says that will enable him care for her when she is old (as if a physician would be more valuable than a nurse in that role). Later in the episode, Dele gets into a fight with another student. In a meeting with the other mother and a school administrator, Abishola tries to shift blame by stressing that it is her son who will become a doctor, which is a grotesque approach for anyone to take, much less a nurse. In episode 5, we see Abishola haranguing Dele about doing his homework and not wasting time on computer games (he is actually playing chess), reminding him that they are in the U.S. so he can attend Harvard Medical School and become a physician. In episode 8, she is checking Dele’s homework when he notes his concern about how tired she is from all her jobs. She says she will rest after he has become a physician. And in episode 13, her son confides to Bob that he doesn’t want to be a physician; he actually loves dancing. After Bob conveys this to Abishola, she agrees to let son study both medicine and choreography in college, and then she will decide what he does.
We can understand why someone in Abishola’s position might have this ambition for her son, and we know that aspirations to medicine are common in immigrant and other communities. But to have such an aspiration stated so forcefully and relentlessly by a nurse, with no specific explanation, clear says that medicine is inherently superior to nursing and nursing is not worthy of talented students like Abishola’s son. It is a serious drag on the show’s portrayal of nursing.
Contact the show at:
Chuck Lorre Productions
+1 818 954 4365 phone
4000 Warner Blvd
Burbank, CA 91522
Alan J. Higgins Executive Producer (showrunner)
Eddie Gorodetsky Executive Producer