Melissa Leong swaps the kitchen for the emergency department in a powerful new series

‘I still feel emotional.'

When Melissa Leong was a little girl growing up in Sydney, her mum would head out at night to work as a nurse at a hospital emergency department.

“She sacrificed a lot by working night shift for the majority of my childhood, so that someone could be there to take care of us during the day,” the Dessert Masters and former MasterChef Australia judge tells TV WEEK. “My dad would take care of us when she would go to work at night.”

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So when Melissa was asked if she wanted to spend time inside St Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney for three-part documentary The Hospital: In The Deep End, she immediately said yes.

“I wanted to see what my mum’s life was like when she was away from us,” she explains. “Spending time in the emergency department certainly gave me a brief glimpse into what she did.”

On her first day in emergency, Melissa saw staff battling to save the life of a young man, Michael, who’d recently had a double lung transplant.

“That was one of the most difficult experiences in my life to bear witness to, because I had to narrate what I was thinking, feeling and witnessing while it was happening and someone was on the brink of death,” she recalls.

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“I still feel emotional thinking about it now, because you’re watching someone who is so close to passing over and he’s young, he has a family… And he’s so funny. We’ve kept in touch and he’s full of life, loves his double espresso in the morning and all the rest of it.”

When her day in the emergency department was over, the first person Melissa wanted to call was her mum.

“I think she’s such a tremendously empathetic person. A lot of my inspiration for how I want to be in my life, I take from her.”

Filming the series in Sydney, away from her current home base of Melbourne, was challenging for the 42-year-old.

“I would go back to where I was staying and just sit in the bath and stare at the wall, to be honest with you,” Melissa admits. “You’re seeking any kind of comfort to just bring you back into your body because it’s such an emotional experience.”

The Hospital is a chance for viewers to see Melissa in a new light. It follows her hosting UFC Fight Week on Kayo in January. Although, she says she’s not consciously trying to move away from being seen solely as a food judge.

“I don’t think that strategically!” she says with a laugh.

For Melissa, her interest in UFC was sparked during the pandemic. It’s led to her taking up jiu-jitsu herself.

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“I started learning jiu-jitsu because it’s a core part of mixed martial arts,” she explains. “I tend to learn best by doing, so I figure, in order to understand better what I’m watching, I should put my money where my mouth is.”

The jiu-jitsu classes do sometimes leave Melissa with bruises – something she doesn’t mind at all. 

“I’m at the very new phase where I’m kind of thrilled by my bruises because it means I’m doing things,” she says, laughing again. “Is that bad? I have a cracking one on my hand at the moment. It really is very purple.”

Whether Dessert Masters, The Hospital or UFC, Melissa says what she does is all about human connection.

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“One gift of many that has come out of MasterChef and the beginning of my career in television is that connecting with people through telling stories and through receiving stories is something I resonate with,” she shares. “It’s obviously something the Australian audience has resonated with me being involved in, and I’m humbled by that awareness.”

If more opportunities like The Hospital come along, Melissa is willing to take them.

“I am a big fan of saying yes to propositions that excite and slightly terrify me!”

The Hospital: In The Deep End premieres on Thursday 6 June on SBS and SBS On Demand. The three-part series continues weekly with episodes one and two airing on SBS at 8:40pm and episode three airing at 8:30pm. All episodes available to stream on SBS On Demand from Thursdays. 

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