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Some of the most riveting documentary filmmaking you’ll see this year, or any year.

It’s Like Casablanca, But a Hospital, And Miserable

Peter Nicks’ 'The Waiting Room' is excellent [yay!]

February 12, 2013, 8:00 pm

The Waiting Room is filled with heartbreak. It’s also some of the most riveting documentary filmmaking you’ll see this year, or any year. There aren’t a lot of ER-type traumas, but there’s plenty of traumatic affliction.

Back when the United States was arguing over the Affordable Care Act, some of the common refrains among the bill’s naysayers were (and this is paraphrasing): You want to have socialized medicine? You want to WAIT to see a doctor? You want to WAIT to get in line to see a doctor?

Those people would be shocked—maybe—to see The Waiting Room. The poor waiting at Oakland’s public Highland Hospital are stuck there all day and longer, and it has nothing to do with some trumped-up, bullshit, fake socialism. It’s because these people are destitute, don’t have insurance and have to take their chances waiting for care.

If these patients have to see a specialist, they’re told they may have to wait months for an appointment. One man, a carpet layer with searing back pain, returns to the hospital to find out why he hasn’t been called by a physician for a follow-up. He’s told the call will take at least a month, maybe longer. Everyone waits, and then waits some more.

Luckily, most people who end up in Highland Hospital’s emergency room are first seen by triage nurse CJ, who’s a sort of magical combination of tough, sweet and caring. This woman has the right words for everyone, even for people who have lost their patience or are scared out of their minds.

“It’s a process, though. You feel me?” says one waiting patient with a bad knee. No kidding.

Take the carpet layer. He’s in his mid-50s; his house is underwater following the banking crisis; his daughter and grandchild have moved in with him; and bone spurs in his back are causing pain so agonizing that he can’t sleep. Muscle relaxants help until about 3 am, but he’s afraid to take a second pill because he may not wake up on time for work.

Then there’s the man in his late 20s who has a testicular tumor. A scheduled surgery at a different hospital to remove the tumor is canceled because he’s without insurance. He and his girlfriend end up at Highland, waiting to see someone when they know already what they need.

Amid all the bewildering waiting is the staff of doctors, nurses and social workers at Highland.

These are the kinds of people you want managing your case. They provide welcome solace when it seems each story may have a sad ending. There’s endless arm twisting, deal making and string pulling to get patients a bed, a specialist or some kind of relief.

Of course, the doctors and nurses are frustrated, just like their patients. There aren’t enough beds to put people in. Sometimes an alcoholic drying out takes a bed that a really sick person needs.

How they manage to stay completely professional is a mystery. How the patients manage moments of levity during the anguish of their illnesses and the fear of mounting debt is a mystery.

The carpet layer, for example, jokes at checkout about how to pay for his care. It’s almost as if he’s made a decision: Laugh or cry, and laughing seems better.

There’s a lot of summary in this review, but all that summation doesn’t cover one-third of the emotion that fills The Waiting Room. And the big question is: How can we treat our fellow human beings like this? How can we make sick people wait?

Will the healthcare law change anything (a short video on The Waiting Room website shows that the hospital staff doesn’t have high hopes)?

Director Peter Nicks has made a wonderful, difficult movie, and he brings the same care, compassion and consideration to the filmmaking that the staff does to patient care.  

Directed by Peter Nicks / The Screen / NR / 82 min.


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