Science in Media: Handling Medicines Without the Proper Understanding of Dosage

Haven’t done one of these in a while. But there’s this scene, in Stranger Things 2, that struck me enough that I had to talk about it.

Basically, you have a character with no medical or pharmacological experience whatsoever, filling up a syringe with an unspecified drug (to put patients to sleep) and injecting a child with it. (At least twice in about a day, actually.) My immediate thought upon seeing that was, “well, if it were real life, she’s probably just killed this kid.”

Anesthesiology is generally safe–because it’s practiced by professionals who know what they’re doing. It is its own medical field. A random person off the street cannot walk into a clinic and do that job. Or, as in the case of Stranger Things 2, part of that job (minus all the work during preparation and surgery). 

I am not a doctor and don’t know the specifics of what goes into the use of anesthesia–there’s probably more to this scenario than I know to talk about. (Though hopefully the above TED talk can fill in a little more information.) But as a scientist, the thing that most freaks me out about an untrained individual administering a general anesthetic like in this show, is dosage.

Remember the sorts of things written on the labels of even over-the-counter medications? The drugs considered safe enough that the general public is mostly trusted not to kill ourselves with it? How much to take over what period of time, maximum dosage instructions, different suggestions for children versus adults. What not to mix those medications with. Health risks and possible complications.

Even for over-the-counter medicines, which are supposed to be relatively easy and safe, people overdose. We overdose on aspirin. We overdose on vitamins.

Dosage is a big deal. Too much of anything can kill–too much water can kill (though this is not something to worry about under normal circumstances). And drugs that knock people unconscious are not the kind of things to mess around with when you don’t know what you’re doing.

In Stranger Things 2, the character in question has no idea how much drug is safe for the kid, and how much is dangerous. The doctors who would know, weren’t available in that moment. And no one present in the room even seemed to realize that the drug would not be safe in just any amount.

Most people who aren’t trained in anesthesiology will not be a position where they might administer an anesthetic (hopefully). But a general under-appreciation that the amount of a drug matters as much as what drug is taken, can have other consequences. Overdose is one I’ve already mentioned. So is ignoring instructions and mixing medicines. And of course, there’s always the general danger in science that misinformed public pressure can have negative effects.

Dosage matters, people.

Happy holidays!