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If you’ve ever been to an emergency room, you know it’s hell. Long waits. Cranky administrators. And if you’re a germophobe, forget it—you’re leaving with the flu on top of whatever ails you. The Waiting Room, a documentary by first-time director Peter Nicks, only reaffirms these perceptions. It’s a day—or rather a night—in the life of Highland Hospital in Oakland, Calif. And what the camera captures will alternately frustrate you, anger you, and bring you to tears.
The film follows a certain number of patients, most uninsured—hence their trip to the E.R. instead of a doctor’s office. There’s the 20-something man with a tumor on his testicle, there because Kaiser Permanente, which initially saw him even though he isn’t a member, said he urgently needed an operation—but refused to perform it themselves. He’s there with his partner, and they’ve been trying to get pregnant, adding another layer of tragedy to his diagnosis.
He doesn’t have insurance. Neither does the carpet-layer with severe pains in his back that keep him from sleeping, much less getting through a workday. His bank account is wiped out and he has $80 in his pocket, yet he somehow hasn’t yet qualified for Highland’s discount plan. (He’s asked to bring in pay stubs and other paperwork after he’s discharged. You get the feeling he won’t bother.) Yet another older man is there for dialysis, but curses at the doctor for asking questions and says he doesn’t care if he dies—that it’s preferable to going through the hassle of the E.R. A triage nurse is the film’s sunshine, a genuinely caring, gentle, and upbeat guide for all these frightened patients.
And there are so many patients; the film’s synopsis claims the E.R. attends to 241 in 24 hours. They wait and they bitch, wait and bitch. It’s understandable, but you also see things from the hospital’s view: Trauma patients must come first, and then treatment is granted in order of severity. Someone with a broken toe is just going to have to wait a while when an ambulance drops off a gunshot victim.
At a brisk 83 minutes, The Waiting Room is compelling enough, but it never transcends the slice-of-life. There is little philosophizing and no solutions offered to those stuck without coverage beyond the meager financial aid the hospital can offer the poorest of the poor. At the end, there’s some respite: The sun comes up and the E.R. begins to empty.
But then the chaos, and the heartbreak, start all over again.