The emergency room at Highland Hospital is like a real-life game of musical chairs. Except in this instance, there are no winners and no prizes.
“The Waiting Room,” a documentary by Peter Nicks, premiers on PBS’s Independent Lens from 10-11:30 p.m. EDT Monday, Oct. 21, 2013, as part of the first PBS Indies Showcase. The film is a timely, nerve-wracking, and powerful portrayal that sheds light on the impact that the uninsured have on our healthcare system. It is a crisis of epic proportion.“The Waiting Room” is a documentary about one California city’s public safety-net hospital as it struggles to handle patient overload in a swooning economy and a constantly shifting landscape of health care policy. Click the image above to view the trailer.
To say “The Waiting Room” is a day-in-the-life kind of documentary is an understatement. Yes, it’s a depiction of an ordinary day in a public hospital emergency room (that serves 250 patients daily), but it’s also a naked illustration of the detrimental effects of a broken healthcare system. The cracks in the system are actually chasms. People fall through by the thousands. And even the best intentioned can’t catch the falling. The nets simply aren’t big enough. Parents, families, patients, nurses, and doctors all struggle to get the best care or give the best care. Everyone falls short.
Patients are shuffled from triage to the waiting room to the hallway. The nursing and medical team try desperately to solve a Rubik’s Cube that has no real solution. Emotions run high on both sides. We see laughter, resilience, anger, frustration, helplessness and hopelessness. We see healthcare workers who battle long hours and an endless stream of unreasonable demands, yet still find the time and space to smile. And patients who are powerless in what feels akin to a medical treatment cattle call.
“The Waiting Room” has an ensemble cast, but if there is a star, it is in Cynthia Y. Johnson, a certified nurse assistant who takes vital signs and treats bitterness with laughter. It’s a wonder where she gets her humor and steadfastness, given her front row seat to the ER waiting room, a landscape that stays the same, save for the faces who fill it.
There’s the dad who has been without work (and without health insurance) for a year. He brings his daughter in with such a bad case of strep that her enormously swollen glands prevent her from talking, opening her mouth and moving her head. She’s febrile and tachycardic. Terrified for her health, but afraid to take her to the doctor due to the cost, he’s tearful and apologetic. We later learn that he lost a child years ago after a seizure, and the memory of bringing a child to the hospital, but leaving without him, remains raw.
We also see a “frequent flyer,” a man who’s brought in regularly for drug-related health issues. He’s stabilized and prepared for discharge. There’s just one problem: he has nowhere to go. The residential program, where he resides, refuses to take him back, given his history of multiple relapses. The ER staff feels forced to hold him, unwilling to discharge him to the street.
“The Waiting Room” shows us that, yes, the emergency room is for emergencies. But it’s also a primary care office, a consultation service and a pain clinic. Most of its patients have no medical home, so they make do in the only place left to go. One physician says it best: “It’s not ideal, but we’re a public hospital. We’re the safety net in society, we’re an institution of last resort for so many people.”
The opening scene begins with a long shot from the ER entrance, trained on the morning shift approaching the building. This is just an average workday for them, but they look like they’re marching to war.
And in a way, they are.