BONES Writer Michael Peterson on Bringing Neurofibromatosis Awareness Mainstream in ‘The Doll in the Derby’
February 1, 2013 by Marisa Roffman
While a lot of focus on this Monday’s brand new episode of BONES has landed on the flashy roller derby element of the hour, there’s something else of note going on as well: for the first time in the show’s eight seasons, the series will shed light on the genetic disorder neurofibromatosis.
And while how neurofibromatosis ties directly into the episode is spoilery (I’ll have more for you about that post-airing in order to not ruin the hour), I spoke with BONES writer Michael Peterson (who penned Monday’s episode, “The Doll in the Derby”) about his personal connection to the disease, deciding to finally write it into an episode, and got a few “The Doll in the Derby” teases…
I know this is a personal story for you, so what can you share about your inspiration for writing this episode?
Michael Peterson: It started with my daughter who was born three years ago, Natalie, and she was born with neurofibromatosis and we didn’t know it at first. It took a while until the diagnosis came. [My wife, Kelly, and I] just had no idea and neither did our first three pediatricians. She had multiple birth marks on her body and a bend in her tibia bone, but the doctors said the birth marks were birth marks, and the bend in the bone, they thought it was bowing. And it wasn’t until a couple of months went by that we noticed there was something strange here. And finally, the third pediatrician…said we have to send you to this orthopedist…and he told us Natalie had NF, and the main indicator was the bowing of her tibia.
And at this [point] I already worked on BONES, so it was kind of strange to me — I had this beautiful daughter and she had this illness that could manifest in millions of ways, almost, and the way it was manifesting with her was a bone issue. At first, my wife and I were just stunned. And this is a tricky illness. There’s a wide range of how it can impact people. Neurofibromatosis means tumors can grow anywhere there’s nerves on the body…and there’s nerves everywhere in the body. So you can get cutaneous ones, where basically you’re getting bumps all over your skin. I know a kid who has had tumors in his brain since he was two and they’ve had to put him on chemo [since then]. You can go blind because of tumors that are growing on your optics. But for Natalie, the only indication she’s had has been this bend in her bone. So it was tough for us to get an idea of what was happening.
I came back to my job and half of what we do is come up with bone stuff for storylines. And the amazing thing is we had never done anything with NF before. And I came to all the writers when we first figured this out and I said, “If anyone does a story involving neurofibromatosis, I’ll kill you all.” I just wasn’t ready. And it wasn’t until this year slowed down and I said, there’s an opportunity here: this strange coincidence, there’s the possibility to do something with it; to reach out and to help people know about this, because I had never heard about it and a room of writers who spend their day doing research didn’t know about it, and yet it’s an illness that affects one out of every 3,000 children born. So it’s [impacting people] more than Muscular Dystrophy, more than Huntington’s, more than Cystic Fibrosis put together. And those are all illnesses I’ve heard of, and I’d never heard of NF.
So the first thing was to write an episode to raise awareness. But the challenge was so much of what we do, the bone clues that we find, are on victims on a dead body. And I couldn’t do that. I just said there was no way I could write that storyline with my daughter having NF. So that’s where the genesis of the idea came; I knew what I was not going to do. So I was trying to figure out how you get the word out about NF and do it organically.
Whenever a show tries to relay information about a topic, there’s always a risk that the scenes feel preachy or that the audience is being talked down to. That certainly didn’t seem to be the case here, so was there something special you tried to make sure to avoid doing when writing the script?
MP: I think what really helped is that so few people knew about NF and my daughter…her tibia broke when she was one-and-a-half, and she’s been in a series of a casts. For a while, she was in a spica cast. And this was after the leg broke and they had to put a rod through the leg, through the bone to straighten it out. And then they had to wrap it with bone protein, they had to take it out of her hip to help it to heal. And while it was healing they put her in this thing called a spica cast, and what that does is not just immobilize one leg, but both of her legs.
The cast goes all the way up to her chest, so she was completely immobilized for five months, and we had a series of other casts on…but because my daughter had such an outward sign, people ask about it all the time. They see the cast and they ask, “What happened?” And I think because we’re asked all the time, we don’t shelter her, we take her out, she goes to…Mommy and Me classes. My wife stays at home and is just the best mother in the world and has done a terrific job taking care of Natalie. But because people ask all the time, it’s really very natural for us to talk about it, I think that helped; it didn’t have to come across as preachy. We’ve given this talk so many times, it’s just part of our daily life.
People ask about it and we try and inform them, and let them know because we really found…in a way, we’ve had to become ambassadors for NF and spread awareness. And we try and do it in a way that isn’t preachy, because nobody does want to get preached to. Everybody’s curious, but nobody wants to be talked down to. So I think the practice was really helpful in writing the script.
Given how big BONES’ audience is right now, was there something in particular you wanted to highlight with this episode? Was there just a general awareness you wanted to spread or a charity/organization you wanted to highlight?
MP: Both. I think first is to get the name out there, so it’s something someone recognizes. As I said, it’s a much more common illness than others we know of and others have heard of. So first is to spread awareness.
Second, there’s a fantastic charity called The Children’s Tumor Foundation. We do a walk every year for NF and everybody picks out different names, Team whatever your child’s name is. And my wife and I, instead of calling it Team Natalie, our team is Team Cure NF. And that’s our goal.
As we say in the episode, NF, there is no cure, there is no treatment. We want to not only spread awareness, but we want to find a cure in our daughter’s lifetime. So that’s what we’re dedicated to: first to tell people what it is, and then we want to do whatever is necessary to help people out. So that’s our number one thing. We are blessed to have this opportunity to reach out and tell an audience of 10 million people, “Here’s this thing you may not have heard of.” But we also do get to mention the Children’s Tumor Foundation. So we’d love it they visit the website and read about the good stuff they’re doing.
I have to ask about the episode itself, because Fox did release in the promo that Angela and Booth kiss. Have you been getting feedback about that already, or are people waiting to see what happens when the episode airs?
MP: I’m lucky, I’m actually writing another episode for [later in] the season, so I haven’t been on my Twitter account too much. So thank goodness for that. Everything I’ve been getting is pretty positive. There’s lots of feedback I’m getting about that, but I’m also getting a lot of stuff about the NF stuff. Just a huge amount of positive outlook from that.
But it’s always curious what’s going to be picked as the moment that gets promoted. That is certainly one that’s going to get the audience talking, but I think they’ll be fine once they see the episode. They’re not going to worry about Booth and Brennan.
Was that actually something you guys had been playing with doing for a bit? There’s always been a bit of chemistry there, but it always seemed off limits because Booth and Brennan were clearly heading towards coupledom from the start of the show…
MP: I’ll give complete credit to [BONES creator] Hart [Hanson] and [executive producer] Stephen [Nathan]. That was totally them, and in the best of ways. It was something I think had always been considered, but it was always whose script it was going to go into and at what moment. And I think the opportunity just arose and I’m glad it finally happened. It was a challenge to do because of Booth and Brennan’s relationship, because of Angela and Hodgins relationship, but sometimes you just go for it. And I think it works. I couldn’t be prouder the kiss happened in [my episode].
It was just a fun episode top to bottom. Obviously there was a personal connection for me. Michaela [Conlin (Angela)] had a blast rollerskating. The LA Derby Dolls were just fantastic. They are bruisers, they are amazing watching them go around that track. And the crew! Just top to bottom, it was one of those episodes I was glad to be a part of.
Well, since you mentioned you’re working on an upcoming episode, I know you tweeted out the working title was “The Stiff in the Thong”…a) were you serious?! and b) what can you say about that episode?
MP: [Laughs] It was tentatively called that. The new official title is “The Party in the Pants,” so those are your two hints. Either title works equally well for this episode. It’s going to be a fun one. I’m writing it with [fellow BONES writer] Keith Foglesong, and we’re having a blast as you can tell from the titles. I’d like to see what everyone starts guessing…I believe it’s 8×18!
Is there anything else you’d like to say about the experience of making “The Doll in the Derby”?
MP: I think the big thing is my thanks to the wonderful cast and crew, and the people at Fox also who have just embraced this in every way possible. All of the people here donated to the NF walk we did last year. And allowing me to do this episode. Hart has been [tweeting] about it left and right, and it’s a blessing. It’s strange the twists and turns life throws at you, but I couldn’t be more blessed to be working with this group over here.
“The Doll in the Derby” airs Monday, February 4th at 8 PM on Fox. And make sure to check out The Children’s Tumor Foundation and Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, both of which played an important role in the NF storyline.
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