Highland Hospital is a public hospital in Oakland, California where health services are offered on a sliding-scale fee. The hospital’s doors first opened in 1927. It’s one of many progressive (“progressive” meaning the allowance for income-based payments) health institutions in the Bay Area, a fact that makes being poor in California both a dream and a nightmare. There’s free access to reproductive health services, mental health services, urgent care — the list goes on, but with the majority of its residents either unemployed or underemployed, the demand for services is high. Waiting four hours to be seen by a doctor for ten minutes isn’t uncommon, nor is it uncommon for one staff member to be responsible for the work it would take seven staff members to accomplish in private healthcare. The healthcare system is fucked, we know this, and The Waiting Room does not attempt to be anything other than a very safe, very politically-correct portrayal of what it’s like to be poor and uninsured in America. As a documentary, it’s fine.
Director Peter Nicks follows a group of patients and care providers as they navigate the emergency room of Highland Hospital. The patients include a young girl with a dangerously swollen throat, a young man diagnosed with a testicular tumor, a fifteen year-old shot in the chest, a man working for Sherwin-Williams with insufferable back pain, etc. No one makes enough money. The camera moves in and out of the waiting room to the operating rooms and nurses’ stations with a fluidity mimicking what it must be like for any provider trying to make it upstream. Everything must flow and flow quickly. Staff discuss the availability of open beds, pointing to a color-coded screen filled with names and numbers and columns that would make your head spin. Patients pray to God and swallow quietly as they sit, and sit, and sit. “Jesus take this anger from me,” one man prays as he waits in pain to be seen by someone, anyone. A sense of humor seems to be a priority for most staff, especially for the assistant nurse as she is, quite literally, responsible for checking patients’ blood pressures and maintaining patience in the waiting room. She knows a way to be in the world that most of us will never know. Rarely do we see the staff ‘lose their shit,’ but I’m sure it happens much more frequently than any Sundance jury would like to vote for.
Nicks’ directorial decision to forego interviews in favor of voice-overs creates a non-stop interaction between viewer and film subject. There are no cuts to formal interviews, or charts, or statistical reporting — the techniques of confrontational filmmaking that make most pieces of social media and activist art so unbearable. The film needs little editing or handling by the director, as its subjects provide endless narrative. It is a well-made documentary. It reaches a certain niche of people — those well enough to laud its “human drama,” “level of frankness,” “forthrightness,” and so forth, and various film festivals select it as a piece of art worthy of selection. “Audience Awards” are mentioned as nods to our approval and support, another kind of arm-chair activism we wholeheartedly believe counts. It’s not that The Waiting Room is a waste of time, it’s that its intended audience is.
The Waiting Room is neither hyperbole nor a sensationalized account of what it’s like to be uninsured in this country. It is a reality, and it’s been my reality for most of my adult life. The American Dream that I, and so many others, have come to know, is that we must do everything in our power not to get sick. Our bodies absorb endless abuse and mistreatment, frequently at our own doing, but treatment is sought only when bodies threaten to shut down completely. Regular check-ups ensuring long-term health benefits are a fantasy. “We’re an institution of last resort for so many people,” says one of the main doctors. This creates a frenzied and flawed system that’s only beginning to sneak into political discourse. The Waiting Room is proof that we probably won’t see any kind of stabilized universal healthcare in action for a very, very long time, despite the begging of so many who need it. America, land of the free.