While many still struggle to sober up from the two week long, maple syrup and turkey bender of familial stress and mall shopper rage that we calmly charade as the “the most wonderful time of the year,” documentarian Peter Nicks’ Emergency Room meditation, The Waiting Room, couldn’t have possibly arrived at a better time. Confined to a cramped waiting area, filled with irate and tired travellers, The Waiting Room’s sunrise to sunset look at Highland Hospital’s E.R.—located in Oakland, California– hearkens back to a similar turgid agitation that millions bustling through holiday season airports around the world experience. However, it’s the lives on the line that Nicks documents which smartly put us face to face with the struggles of those unsupported by America’s health insurance: the financially depressed. The Emergency Room is no Trains, Planes and Automobiles, but rather an unflinching, real life account of the high stakes game where lives, instead of plane tickets, are up for grabs.
The Waiting Room follows the stories of several patients: a divorced father, roof repairman, drug addict, little girl and many more of all ages, genders and social classes as they endure the painstaking wait to be helped in Highland’s E.R. Alternating between intake worker, nurse, patient and doctor, it’s Nicks’ free flowing, transient filming style that translates the multilayered, trickledown toll that the nation-wide recession has taken on the thousands of underfunded, safety-net facilities designed to keep people in dire financial states above the poverty line. Bracketed by heartfelt commentary from patients and MDs alike, The Waiting Room flourishes because of its brilliant blending of the factual, personal and societal implications that millions suffer through without basic health insurance.
Hearing a young man’s testimony of how he’s been refused surgery on his life threatening testicular tumor is not only jarring, but unfathomable. As a Canadian, The Waiting Room will make you take note of how for granted the assumed rights of our medical system have been taken. It’s courageous individuals like this young man who put into focus a disturbing, underlying fact about our neighbours south of the border: no matter how dire or in need of assistance you may be, without health benefits, you practically don’t exist.
As a scared father hands his Strep throat stricken daughter over to Highland’s care, it’s through the man’s shaky, personal commentary that we learn his fear for his daughter’s life isn’t the only thing that has him feeling destitute. Recently laid off and with two growing daughters support, the financial crisis this man faces coupled with his daughter’s sickness unearths the terrifying reality of uncertainty that’s common place among so many others waiting in E.R.s across America.
Simply put, its instances of genuine struggle like this in The Waiting Room that shatter the tinted window obscuring the bleak realities of the E.R. that fanciful medical dramas like E.R. and Grey’s Anatomy have lacquered with a decades-worth of gloss and idealism. In this day in age, where medical dramas still pull in large figures on network television, it’s surprising that even the limited commentary from the few doctors and nurses that Nicks gathers proves informative and motivating. You would think that lots of blood and adrenaline would make for an interesting chronicle of the E.R., but it is actually watching one of the nurses interact with a bereft, on the edge drug addict which provides a more worthwhile experience than anything prime time could ever cook up. The Waiting Room proves that regardless of your struggles, your addictions or your convictions, we are all bound together by a system grossly under prepared to deal with the reality of millions who can’t afford health insurance and likewise by the heaven sent facilities like Highland Hospital that are dead bent on keeping those at risk on their feet.