It was a closed set at Grey’s Anatomy last week due to the emotionally charged nature of the scenes being filmed, as guest star Sarah Chalke — whose storyline thus far has been kept under wraps — brought an extremely personal tale to the ABC drama.
A CLOSE CALL
Two years ago, Chalke and her fiancé Jamie Afifi endured a parent’s worst nightmare when their son Charlie, then barely 12 months old, came down with Kawasaki Disease, a difficult-to-diagnose ailment that inflames blood vessels throughout a child’s body and regularly confounds caregivers. “You present with all these symptoms, you get a lot of repeated misdiagnoses, you keep getting sent home [by doctors]…,” the actress shares with TVLine. “We had a really hard time getting him diagnosed.”
Adding to the real-life drama: The rub with Kawasaki Disease (or KD) is that there is a narrow, approximately 10-day window to get treatment, via a 12-hour intravenous treatment called immunoglobulin (or IVIG). Miss that window and about 1 in 4 patients, who are usually age 5 and younger, develop heart disease involving the coronary arteries.
“We fought really hard to see a specialist, but got the treatment on Day 10-1/2,” Chalke relates. “It was on the late side, but thank God Charlie is OK.” Coming out of that harrowing experience, “We thought, ‘What can we do to help other parents and kids not have to go through what we went through? What about an episode on a medical show?'”
Though Chalke’s family went through this two years ago, it was only recently that she began speaking openly about it, at a November “Save a Child’s Heart” fundraiser for KD (photo, right). “Talking about it and hearing other parents speak, that’s sort of what galvanized me to make a difference, to do this now. Obviously in this business, you do whatever you can to protect your child’s privacy, but there’s a time when the scale tips and you figure out a way to talk about it.”
So, in January of this year, the Scrubs alumna met with Grey’s creator Shonda Rhimes, executive producer Betsy Beers, writer Joan Rater and research director Meg Marinis. “We just chatted for an hour, as I shared the story of our whole experience,” Chalke says. “They were like, ‘We absolutely want to do this — and we’ll let you play the mom.'”
In the March 28 episode of Grey’s, Chalke guest-stars as a single mother who arrives at the show’s Seattle hospital with her infant son, after suffering repeated misdiagnoses at other ERs yet knowing — hence the episode’s title, “Can’t Fight This Feeling” — that something is quite wrong. As illustrated on the ABC drama, Kawasaki Disease “is a really visual thing,” Chalke says, presenting with any combination of symptoms including red, lipsticked-like lips, red eyes, a rash all over the body, a lingering fever, swollen lymph nodes and — perhaps the most tell-tale indicator — skin peeling from the fingers.
RISING TO THE CHALLENGE
Understandably, though every bit the professional, Chalke couldn’t help but let her own emotions slip through as she dramatized her tale, sharing scenes with Ellen Pompeo and Camilla Luddington. “Oh my God…. There were some tears,” she says. “As an actor, you’re usually like, ‘Will I be able to cry when I’m supposed to cry?’ But this is more like, “Will I be able to stop crying when I have to stop crying?’
“It was definitely a bit scary to tackle,” she continues. “I didn’t know what that experience was going to be like, to hold a baby who was made up to look like Charlie did at that time. It was probably the most challenging thing I’ve done, but it ended up being a really good experience. The thing that means so much to me … is raising awareness about [KD], so that it doesn’t go untreated [for other families].”
HOW TO SAVE A LIFE
Chalke also filmed a PSA, airing at the end of the hour and pointing people to KDFoundation.org, which she regards as “the website that saved Charlie, because that’s the one that we kept going back to, every day for 10 days, looking at this very clear checklist of symptoms and going ‘Yep, yep, yep, yep….’ That was what kept us fighting.”
A spokesperson for the foundation champions Chalke’s effort, saying, “Approximately 5,000 cases of Kawasaki Disease are reported in the United States every year, although the actual number of cases is likely greater because many cases go undiagnosed and untreated…. We are grateful to Sarah for sharing her story and creating awareness about KD. Her efforts may save the lives of young children around the world.”
Indeed, every bit of awareness is critical. According to Chalke, “The Kawasaki doctor we dealt with said they do a news story every year, and often that save lives every year. So she said that this [Grey's Anatomy] episode absolutely is going to save lives. It’s going to save some kids.”
Chalke’s Grey’s episode airs March 28; her new ABC sitcom How To Live With Your Parents (For the Rest of Your Life) debuts the following Wednesday, April 3, at 9:30/8:30c.