TV Show Melds Dark Humor with Unvarnished View of Life with Chronic Illness
August 22, 2018
Travis Flores grew up with cystic fibrosis, spending much time in hospitals and attending support groups in the facilities where he got care.
When he attended these groups, he was the only CF patient in them because of the risk of infection that comes with two CF patients having close contact. The groups were meant to provide support, but Flores said they did so only in name.
“They were sort of supportive, but they weren’t really supportive,” he said. “Everyone just cries and is really sad.”
Though his experiences may not seem like fodder for comedy—Flores, 27, has now gone through two double lung transplants— he said like many people who have chronic illness, he’s developed a dark sense of humor. The writer, actor, and advocate has harnessed that now to create a new television program with a nod to his support group experience in the title (Sorta) Supportive.
(Sorta) Supportive centers on a group of young people with chronic illness who come together in a hospital support group. The characters in the show are loosely based on people Flores has known from his time in hospitals, chat rooms, and support group circles.
The characters in the show have different illnesses, but because he was able to secure financial backing for the pilot through a grant for PHAware Global, an organization that works to create awareness about pulmonary hypertension, he reworked the pilot episode to focus on pulmonary hypertension.
At the end of the pilot episode, the support group members in the show decide to work together to fulfill their bucket lists. The first episode ends with the group deciding to tackle skydiving, a problematic endeavor for people with cystic fibrosis and pulmonary hypertension because of the effect of the altitude has on these patients’ ability to breathe.
Most of the cast and crew of (Sorta) Supportive are either people who have a chronic illness or have close family members who do. In addition to Flores, the show stars Elaine Hendrix and Madison McLaughlin. McLaughlin, who is a Global Genes ambassador, appeared on Chicago PD, as well as CW’s Arrow and Supernatural.
The cast also includes young rare disease advocates that Flores has come to know through his own advocacy work including Shira Strongin, founder of The Sick Chicks Network. Strongin was a recipient of a Global Genes’ RARE Champion of Hope award for teen advocacy in 2015.
Television production can be grueling work, but Flores said the production team learned to work around the needs of cast members. For instance, one cast member who had undergone a lung transplant a few months before shooting had open heart surgery a week before cameras started to role. She just didn’t have the stamina to be on the set all day. Sensitive to her condition, the production team sent her home to rest and worked around her as necessary.
Flores, who is a theatre graduate of Marymount Manhattan College, has long been a rare disease advocate and speaker. He’s been working on writing the show for six years, but his changing health caused him to feel the urgency to do something. “I’ve been through a lot of loss,” he said. “After the second transplant, I decided I needed to do something now.”
One of the more memorable moments for Flores happened behind the cameras when he hosted on the set the family of the organ donor who saved his life. “They got to see me do something I wanted to do my whole life,” he said. “I’m here because of the decision they made.”
There’s no deal yet for distribution of the program. Once editing of the pilot is complete, Flores plans to bring the show to hospitals and academic centers for feedback. He wants to make sure the disability community and medical community believe it accurately reflects the reality of living with chronic illness before shopping it.
“There are so many things out there that are just romanticizing everything that people who have illness go through. I want it to be a real picture of what I’ve gone through and what my friends have gone through,” he said. “What we go through isn’t what’s being portrayed in Hollywood. It’s hard to live with a terminal condition and Hollywood has painted this picture of this romantic life that you have when you are sick. That’s not what it’s like when you are sick.”
In the first episode, he said, there are characters who are bitter about what they are going through, characters who are coping with what they are going through, and characters who are learning about what they are going through and are shocked and devastated by it. By the end of the episode, though, they come together and decide that they are going to do things that make them happy.
“It won’t cure them,” he said, “but they will feel like they are doing something now rather than envisioning their future and trying to do it later because later doesn’t always happen.”
Flores, who is active on social media, said he like hearing from other patients and would like to involve them in (Sorta) Supportive. He’s inviting people to share their stories, particularly if they are writers, actors, or other artists and would like to become involved in the production. He said he’s assembling a catalogue of people to call on for when the series is picked up. He can be contacted through the social media links on his website.
August 22, 2018
Photo: Cast of (Sorta) Supportive during a table read of the pilot
Editor’s note: This story was updated September 24 because a previous version had misidentified the condition of Shira Strongin, who as of this writing is considered as having a rare and undiagnosed disease.
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