A Much Needed Trip To The Hospital
DIRECTED BY PETER NICKS/2013
In 2010, Waiting for Superman made waves as a stinging documentary that exposed stubborn policies that make education reform seem almost impossible. It lionized charter schools and demonized teachers unions with impunity, its unapologetically one-sided approach causing outrage. But most documentaries try to make a point, achieve some end, promote some change. Waiting for Superman made its case by presenting the struggles of a few young children as they tried to achieve their dreams in spite of the public education they had available to them. It leads up to lottery day, where the children find out whether or not they have been randomly selected to get a ticket out of a failing school and into a charter school. It’s the natural end point for such a story and for such a documentary.
But what happens if you strip away the obvious slant? What happens if you dump the narration, can the story arc? What happens if you just let the camera roll for 24 hours? In a public hospital waiting room?
The Waiting Room happens. Director Peter Nicks knits an astonishing story out of the constellation of maladies taking place in Highland Hospital’s waiting room. Highland is an Oakland, California “safety net hospital,” meaning that they are the last line of defense for the uninsured. There are no names, just faces and voices. We follow a middle-aged man who has had to take a pay cut at his blue-collar job. He can’t afford good health insurance, but he isn’t poor enough to qualify for charitable aid. A young recently unemployed father brings in his fevered daughter. He tries to love and comfort her, because there is nothing else he can do at this point. A soft spoken twenty-something waits for a life saving surgery after being denied the procedure at a private hospital. We eavesdrop on candid conversations and huddle prayers. The world is mesmerizing if you just stop and listen.
The heroes of the hospital, decked in scrubs and adorned with tired eyes, mount a herculean effort to clear the waiting room. But there are only so many beds, so many doctors. This is not first-come, first-served any more than a triage is first-come, first-served. The nurses, doctors and technicians all engage in a choreographed scramble when a gunshot victim is carted in. The waiting room is set back another hour, the tyranny of the urgent prevails yet again.
Director Peter Nicks knits an astonishing story out of the constellation of maladies taking place in Highland Hospital’s waiting room. Highland is an Oakland, California “safety net hospital,” meaning that they are the last line of defense for the uninsured.
Nicks succeeds in presenting a quiet case for public health reform. His dramatic pacing and careful editing frame a reality, not a lecture. He doesn’t linger on maudlin scenes of desperation or exploit any of his subjects. Nicks avoids oversimplifying the diagnosis. Who do we blame? Well, it’s a little bit of everything—crime, a bad economy, hard luck, our own poor choices, the poor choices of those in authority. Maybe it’s just evil in all its permutations. To the people at the bottom, the most vulnerable, it doesn’t take much for those invisible forces to land you $50k in debt for a procedure that will only extend your life long enough to pay off your procedure.
About an hour into The Waiting Room, a young doctor is trying to ascertain why an elderly gentleman has been sent to Highland for dialysis, an unusual procedure for their hospital. The patient makes no effort to hide his frustration; he’s been shuffled around form hospital to hospital. He asks for the doctor to remove his catheter so he can just go home. The doctor gently informs him, “If we take [the catheter] out, you would eventually die.” The old man snaps back, “So f—ing what? We all gonna die. You too.”
For the staff of Highland Hospital, it is not enough to just treat their patients. They have to be saints. They have to care more about the health of their patients than their patients do. As theologian Miroslav Volf has said, “The world will be saved by saints. Or not at all.”
While painful to watch at times, The Waiting Room is an uplifting, depressing, exciting and fatiguing experience that cannot be missed.
THE WAITING ROOM expands its U.S. theatrical run March 22nd, 2013.