Director Peter Nicks was allowed unprecedented access to 24 hours in the emergency department of Highland Hospital in Oakland, Calif. He shows the range of kindness and shortness, the expertise and waste, and the scheduling along with the bureaucracy.
He does not layer people's lives with the voices of experts explaining what is clearly visible. He simply shows what it's like to be sick and to have no where else to go. The room fills up with tongues -- Asian, Hispanic, white English and black.
Triage means the sicker go ahead of those waiting already. A tack-sharp triage nurse, with her sparkly glasses, roves between being crisply efficient to being maternal, calling every patient "baby." To a young man who spews obscenities, this nurse declares that his mother did not raise him to talk like that and she insists that he not disrespect her. He is suitably cowed. This same nurse patiently explains to in-comers that they should take a seat to wait.
A father brings in a feverish child of 8. He's more nervous than she. She has trouble swallowing; he has trouble sitting still. Then his ex-wife shows up, and the two of the do the dance of the divorced as each tries to care for their baby girl.
A young man, scheduled for testicular surgery, has been referred from another hospital because he does not have insurance. He still needs surgery and he still does not have insurance. His girlfriend runs interference in a kindly way, explaining over and over to every uniformed medico who attends her boyfriend what the situation is, medically and economically. People walk in with shopping bags of orange pill bottles, and people are wheeled in by their families.
Meanwhile, the head of the emergency department works with scheduling nurses, manipulating computer programs to figure out who gets a bed, who has to stay in the hall, who is seen next. The colors assigned to the situations turn the computer screen into a party no one wants to attend. Doctors call in favors and call for consultations. And the patients wait and wait. Some leave with a diagnosis and a prescription; some leave as bent as before. "The Waiting Room" is one of those documentaries terribly hard to release from your mind because the cast of characters has staying power. "The Waiting Room" educates beyond anything a textbook can.