Vital Signs

updated 05/12/2003 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/12/2003 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Ming-Na, who plays Dr. Deb Chen on ER, recently dined out with her husband, screenwriter Eric Zee, and two real-life doctor friends, an oncologist and a retina surgeon. Suddenly, a cell phone went off. Hers. "I was called into work," says the 39-year-old actress. "The fake doctor!"

That same humming energy has kept ER's County General Hospital a highly rated hubbub of medical crises and broken hearts straight through its landmark May 8 episode—the 200th. Immediately following its 1994 debut, the NBC drama, now winner of 20 Emmys, became a breakthrough hit with its doctors spouting medical jargon and juggling needles, scalpels and defibrilators. "You'd be working with five instruments and have to have them in 10 different places," says Michael Michele, 36, who played Dr. Cleo Finch for three seasons.

That hasn't changed, but the staff has: Of the original cast, Noah Wyle (Dr. John Carter) is the one remaining star apart from Sherry Stringfield, 35, who left the show in 1996 and returned in 2001. "What they used to pay everyone else combined, they now pay me," Wyle, 31, joked at a Hollywood nightclub on April 12 during an anniversary party for the series. (He makes an estimated $400,000 an episode.) With the departure of George Clooney in 1999 went much of the cast's penchant for physical pranks—like the time he slathered a surgical lubricant all over the prop crutch Laura Innes, 45, used to play Dr. Kerry Weaver. "I grabbed the crutch and just crashed down," recalls Innes. Compared to that, "we're dorks."

These days more time is spent cooing at the babies who are constant visitors to the set: Alex Kingston's Salome, 2, Stringfield's Phoebe, 2, Innes's Mia, 18 months, and Mekhi Phifer's Omikaye, 3. "So many kids have been born since this has been on," says Kingston, 40 (Dr. Elizabeth Corday Greene). "Children are not only welcome, they're loved."

Not that the actors aren't fond of the wilder days. "I once bet Eriq La Salle he couldn't eat three pounds of unprocessed American cheese in half an hour," recalls Wyle. "He did it, and I had to pay him $2,000." But hitting 200 brings its own quiet pride. "Reaching that mark," says Wyle, "gives you professor-emeritus status."

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