A rock-solid verite docu, Peter Nicks’ “The Waiting Room” spends hard time in the emergency room at Highland Hospital in Oakland, Calif., where patients often have to wait all day to be seen, then weeks or even months to receive follow-up treatments. Its largely uninsured, poor, black clientele can’t afford a more convenient option. Yet even as Nicks provides ample evidence why our national health-care system needs fixing, his film finds inspiration in the dedication and resilience of a medical staff working under constant pressure, as well as the resigned patience of (most) patients. Pubcasters will fill out the appropriate forms.
Sans narration or titles, the pic plunges us into the everyday norms of working and waiting at Highland, a public hospital that includes Alameda County’s main trauma center. Unfortunately, that means patients with legitimately serious illnesses can get repeatedly bumped down the treatment-priority list whenever ambulances arrive with trauma cases. One irate man with a bullet in his leg stews in the waiting room, unable to fathom why he hasn’t been dealt with yet. But there’s a chronic shortage of beds, some occupied by patients who can’t be released if they have nowhere to go, further slowing new admittances.
Ailments run the gamut, though the pic focuses particularly on a handful of visitors. One is a little girl, with fever and strep throat, whose estranged parents take turns as guardian. A young student arrives after being unceremoniously dumped from a scheduled testicular-cancer tumor operation at a private hospital, despite the procedure’s urgency. An older man with myriad substance-abuse problems shows up, not for the first time, in pain and panic; this time it’s not clear if the fed-up pastor who’s his last resort will even take responsibility for his release.
Principal staff followed include certified nurse assistant Cynthia Y. Johnson, who, despite that underwhelming title, seems to rule over the sometimes unruly waiting room with absolute authority and a wonderful conversational manner. There’s also young resident Douglas White, who exemplifies grace and empathy under hectic circumstances. While it’s noted that some younger professionals here and elsewhere might initially have been drawn to their field by the nonstop excitement of “ER,” “The Waiting Room” doesn’t dwell on the trauma unit’s higher drama; even in one tense, life-or-death moment, procedural calm reigns.
A running theme is that people land here because they’re uninsured — not due to irresponsibility, as some in the health-care debate suggest, but rather because, as members of the working poor or the freshly unemployed, they lack money to pay the bills. Many speak of recent layoffs, while one man notes his house is at risk of foreclosure because his employer of 30 years insisted he either take a major pay cut or be replaced by illegal laborers. (Chronic pain may soon prevent him from working anyway.)
“I’m sorry it’s been so frustrating navigating the system,” a doctor says to the testicular-cancer patient, an apology that resonates far beyond his individual case. While “The Waiting Room” doesn’t overtly editorialize (even music is kept to a minimum), its clear-eyed, well-crafted observation makes it plain Americans deserve a better system than this.