If you follow Pop Theology, you’ll notice I’ve been focusing on documentaries as of late. The five Oscar nominees are rich viewing experiences that incite a variety of emotional responses and will no doubt contribute, in very important ways, to ongoing dialogue around issues as diverse as the procurement of AIDS treatment drugs and the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. A small scale documentary that didn’t get the wider publicity it deserved, The Waiting Room, which is a welcome voice in discussions around health care issues, is equal in all respects to its awards-nominated counterparts.
Highland Hospital in Oakland, California, is the central trauma hospital for Alameda County. Given Oakland’s high violent crime rate, nearly all gunshot victims are taken here for emergency surgery. As such, the ER is one of the busiest and most intense in the country. A doctor friend told me that the cream-of-the-crop medical students apply for residencies there because of the demanding work load. A stat on the hospital’s website says, “The busiest Emergency Department in the county, with some 80,000 visits annually.” As one of the largest public hospitals in the region, it is also a magnet for the “medically indigent” and uninsured who come there for emergency and, unfortunately, primary care.
The Waiting Room goes behind the scenes at the ER for a 24-hour period and focuses on a handful of patients, nurses, and doctors as they seek or give medical care. The strength of this documentary lies in the filmmakers’ commitment to resist editorializing, sensationalizing, or over-stating their case. As such, as an audience member, it really felt like I was either with the patients as the (im)patiently waited to be treated or standing alongside the doctors and nurses as they tried their best to react to a mounting case load. There are no talking heads, politicians, or administrators in the film to tell us what’s “really going on” or what we should think about the situation. We just have patients and medical staff giving us the most honest portrayal of their experiences as possible. Sometimes it’s pretty, and, at others, it’s pretty damn ugly.
There are implications here for discussions of gun control and changes in health care. These are discussions worth having at length elsewhere, but it’s hard to watch this documentary and not come away with the sense that the system is broken in significant ways. I certainly left with an even greater compassion for people trapped by a lack of insurance who suffer the ambiguity of illness that is no respecter of coverage or a lack thereof. If you don’t connect with, sympathize with, or resonate with at least one person in this documentary, then you are in need of medical attention yourself because you no longer have a pulse.
Look for The Waiting Room when it releases on DVD later this year. You can visit the film’s website to be notified when it releases on DVD.