The Waiting Room: Film Review

Appropriately straightforward doc brings useful perspective to the healthcare debate.

Peter Nicks crafts a composite day-in-the-life of an Oakland hospital's overtaxed emergency room.

A verité look at an unexamined part of the national healtcare debate, Peter Nicks' The Waiting Room spends a day with uninsured Oakland citizens in the public-hospital emergency room that serves as their sole medical resource. Inherently unpreachy but making its point more effectively than many participants in the debate can, the film should find vocal advocates in a niche theatrical run.

Though it appears to depict one 24-hour period, the doc was actually shot over five months -- allowing Nicks to follow individual patients through a day's worth of care and stitch the stories together. He presents the composite without onscreen informational titles, and with no narration beyond a few short voiceover notes from Douglas White, the doctor we see the most of here.

Dr. White has a good deal of non-medical work on his plate -- guilt-tripping a neurologist into seeing a patient who can't pay, serving as counselor for a drug addict who's admitted to the ER so regularly everyone knows him by name. He's a picture of conscience-driven caregiving, the kind of expert one wishes would get equal nightly-news time with politicians loudly fretting over the evils of socialized medicine.

Similarly inspiring is Cynthia Y. Johnson, the good-tempered nurse assistant who cajoles patients into being patient and figures out which ones need help most quickly. There's plenty of need for patience here, of course: We watch as resigned families discuss waiting weeks for promised follow-up calls and try to predict whether their various afflictions are extreme enough to merit an examination before sundown. Occasionally one will erupt -- cursing at Nurse Johnson or, in an affecting moment, insisting that a doctor remove a catheter so the patient can die outside this environment of eternal delays.

Most retain their dignity, though, despite having to confront the relationship between their economic status and their likely lifespan. One young man had been scheduled for emergency surgery on a testicular tumor, only to have Kaiser Permanente cancel on the day of the operation after they realized he was uninsured. Another man, suffering from painful bone spurs, says "I'm self-employed but I work for Sherwin-Williams" -- the kind of oxymoronic legalese that exists solely to deny him company benefits and force him to pay more taxes than he should.

Despite the fraught material, Lawrence Lerew's editing finds enough time for ordinary moments -- conversations struck up between strangers, parents encouraging brave children -- that Waiting Room never seems to be shoving its moral perspective down viewers' throats. It leaves us to decide for ourselves how a humane society would handle the often unnecessary pain endured in this crowded place of stasis.

Production Company: Open'Hood, Independent Television Service, Peer Review Films

Director-Director of photography: Peter Nicks

Producers: Linda Davis, William B. Hirsch, Peter Nicks

Executive producer: Scott Verges

Music: William Ryan Fritch

Editor: Lawrence Lerew

No rating, 81 minutes