Two PAs Get Their ‘Big Break’ in TV and Film Production

PAs Petropoulos and Knutson took their clinical skills and put them to use in new and exciting ways

August 21, 2023

By Dave Andrews

Whether you’re an aspiring actor or an accomplished healthcare provider, the requirements to make it in show business are very similar: You need talent, determination, and a lot of luck.

Although establishing a career in the TV and film industry is not a typical goal for many who work in healthcare, a select number of providers got their “big break” during the COVID-19 pandemic when they were hired by production companies as coronavirus health advisors.

After the initial shutdowns at the onset of the pandemic, PAs like Michelle Petropoulos and Rob Knutson were among those asked to help get production crews back up and running. The two providers were each finishing a three-month emergency travel contract at Bellevue Hospital in New York City and were looking for opportunities where they could continue to help as the pandemic persisted.

PA Michelle Petropoulos poses behind an office desk on the set of Succession.

Impressed by their working styles and ability to handle high-pressure situations, one of their physician counterparts who worked alongside them at Bellevue put them in touch with her husband, a producer for Max (formerly HBO).

“This was a scary time for everyone, and they needed someone to figure out how to effectively implement all of these new health and safety protocols among crews of several hundred people. And that’s where we came into the picture,” said Petropoulos, who had spent most of her 22-year career practicing family medicine at Preferred Medical Group in Madison Heights, Michigan.

The first show Petropoulos and Knutson worked on together was Betty in the summer of 2020. Facing a large crew of more than 200 people, they quickly hired a staff of more than 20 production assistants to help them coordinate testing schedules, manage health inquiries, and facilitate education sessions to discuss safety protocols and share best practices.

“Having our medical background and the experiences we’ve had, especially while at Bellevue during a very chaotic time of the pandemic, was really beneficial for us in those roles,” said Knutson, who for several years prior had worked as an occupational medicine PA in Denver. “We had been face to face with the virus for several months leading up to that, so we were already comfortable communicating to others what needed to be done and why.”

Much of what Petropoulos and Knutson educated the crews on came from “The Safe Way Forward,” a detailed, 37-page document drafted by a union of film industry groups led by the Directors Guild of America (DGA) and with the help of several infectious disease experts. The providers went a step further and created an additional, internal manual for the cast and crew to help simplify and better illustrate what film sets would need to do to operate safely amid a surging pandemic.

“This was a huge shift for people in that industry, most of whom are used to working extremely close to one another for extended periods of time,” Petropoulos said. “Even behind the scenes, they’re typically in very close quarters when taking breaks and eating meals. So especially when you’re talking about 300, 400 cast and crew members, maintaining the social distancing was a non-stop challenge.”

PA Rob Knutson poses while on location in Upstate New York during a production for Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.

But at a time of uncertainty and within an industry as susceptible to shutdowns as film, Petropoulos says the cast and crew members were always overwhelmingly supportive and willing to do whatever it took to keep their sets operational.

Throughout each day, the providers and their teams spent much of their time meeting with numerous groups, fielding questions and trying to help people feel more at ease coming back to work. COVID tests quickly became routine, as each cast and crew member had to be tested at least one to three times a week—and oftentimes more frequently based on exposure levels.

After working together on Betty and successfully implementing a stringent set of safety protocols, Petropoulos and Knutson were asked to work on separate shows to cover more ground. Knutson went on to work for shows such as And Just Like That, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, and The Other Two.

Meanwhile, Petropoulos went to work for several other shows including Succession, The Time Traveler’s Wife, and The Gilded Age—sometimes simultaneously. At her busiest point, while the Omicron variant was surging, she was working for seven different shows at the same time.

“Over the last three years, I’ve probably worked more than I had in the previous ten [years] combined,” Petropoulos said. “I loved it, but it was a lot of work and it felt much different than working in a clinical setting.

“We had to be available 24/7 because crew members and writers are often in other time zones and in different parts of the world. And we encouraged them to reach out to us whenever and with whatever concerns they had.”

PA Michelle Petropoulos takes a quick break while on the set of Succession.

As production health advisors, Petropoulos and Knutson would regularly travel with the crews to filming locations across the country, and even internationally. While with Succession, Petropoulos had the opportunity to travel to Norway and Barbados. For each trip, she and her team would need to research all the international health guidelines and implement them—as well as their own—as soon as the crew arrived.

“I had a small team I brought with me, and we would also hire a team of local providers to help us understand the local procedures,” Petropoulos said. “It was very meticulous and definitely required a collaborative effort to understand all the differences in how [our countries] did things.”

Despite the long hours and high demands of the job, Petropoulos and Knutson loved the work so much that they stayed in the industry for as long as they could. In May 2023, the DGA’s COVID-19 Safety Agreement expired, officially signaling the end of required COVID protocols on production sets.

In addition to resuming their respective clinical practices, both providers have since returned on a part-time basis to Bellevue Hospital where they oversee the PA section of the hospital’s nephrology department, which they created in 2020. And each provider says that the skills they developed while working in TV and film have already made an impact in their practices.

“Not only was it a fun and challenging experience, but it truly helped refine my management abilities,” Knutson said. “I learned so many strategies to address stressful situations and how to efficiently adapt to different scenarios and environments, and those are some of the most critical skills we need to provide high-quality care.”

Dave Andrews is a freelance writer and public relations professional based in Northern Virginia. Contact him at [email protected].

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