Documentary finds teeming humanity in community hospital emergency room
By T.T. Stern-Enzi
Talk about timing being everything. Director Peter Nicks’ new documentary “The Waiting Room” premiered theatrically in September of 2012. The film won the Truer Than Fiction Award at the 2012 Independent Spirit Awards, where it was also nominated in the Best Documentary category. “The Waiting Room” arrives on DVD and digital platforms on Tuesday, Oct. 22, hot on the heels of a government shutdown predicated on efforts to delay, defund or completely overturn the Affordable Health Care Act just as the new health care exchanges were set to rollout.
The United States has a health care problem. That statement sounds like a vague pronouncement, meant to inflame political partisans – the proverbial shot across the bow, if you will. But Nicks takes viewers on a perilous human journey, walking hand-in-hand with patients, largely uninsured, willing to sit and wait for hours, sometimes in excruciating pain, to be seen by emergency room staff because they have no other options. People in need of medication, some deferred for serious surgical treatment at other facilities due to the lack of coverage, others wheeled in on stretchers with gun shot wounds or suffering from severe trauma, they enter on this day – just like they do on any other day – and they wait.
The ER staff at Highland Hospital in Oakland, Calif. know these people; they sometimes recognize patients before picking up their charts and they do whatever they can, which, sadly, can be very little. We have this fantasy of what takes place in emergency rooms, a vision inspired by television soap operas full of handsome doctors rushing in to perform tracheotomies and clamp bloody wounds, rescuing patients from death’s door, or we moon over the mournful expressions of medical staff who weren’t able to save that one kid who had just hit the winning home run before getting caught in a massive pile-up on his/her way to celebrate with their team.
“The Waiting Room” cuts through the heroic mythology and the blistering hysteria of “life or death” situations. The desperation here is quiet, but no less real. In fact, it is all too real when we see a young girl with a temperature of 104 F and working parents who shuttle back and forth between her and her even younger siblings waiting amongst the huddled masses yearning for treatment. There is palpable frustration in the face of an older gentleman, waiting, plugged full of catheters and tubes, for hours without having access to a doctor to let him know what’s going on. It comes as no surprise when he finally explodes on the medical staff, cursing and begging to be cut loose, willing to just go off and die on his own.
Television shows and movies can’t capture moments like that, not the reality of them because that reality contains a degree of humanity, a sheer embrace of the inevitability of mortality that fictional accounts grasp all too rarely. And I haven’t even addressed the sense of hopefulness also at play in the staff and the patients. The film captures the effort and desire for the system to work, the belief that we really could be heroes – the entire country – if we had an effective health care system.
Ultimately, it seems silly to attempt to compare this to scripted drama, because while we are conditioned to seek the happy ending, “The Waiting Room” proposes that there is not an ending – happy or otherwise – to the scenario. There is just the conclusion of a day and the reality of another to come, with more waiting. Such is life.
Reach DCP film critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com.