“The crowded emergency room of Highland Hospital in Oakland, Calif., is the setting of Peter Nicks’s wrenching documentary “The Waiting Room.” Shot in 2010 over five months, the film, which has no narrator, titles, statistical analysis or overt editorializing, observes a composite day there during which nearly 250 patients — most of them uninsured — pour in.
The movie focuses on about 10 patients as they navigate the intimidating bureaucracy of a health care system that seems stretched to the breaking point. You have to admire the unflappable calm of a staff confronting the anger, fear and desperation of an unending stream of people in dire need of medical attention. Brief time-lapse segments, shot from above, give a sense of the tide of humanity rolling in and out as the hours pass.
A student with testicular cancer seeks help after being rejected by a private hospital, which at the last minute canceled his scheduled operation because he lacked insurance. An older recurrent visitor, who abuses multiple substances, faces homelessness if the exasperated pastor who has looked after him refuses to take responsibility for his release. Occupying another badly needed bed, he will remain in the hospital until he has a place to go.
Another fragile patient, who has just been discharged and appears to be in no condition to fend for herself, is helped to a bus. But what will happen to her? The film doesn’t say.
A carpenter with bone spurs in his lower back that cause him excruciating pain describes how after working for his company for 30 years, he is being threatened with replacement by cheap, illegal laborers unless he takes a major pay cut; he is already broke and facing foreclosure.
The angriest patient, returning to the hospital for dialysis, threatens to have his chest catheter removed because dying would be preferable to facing bureaucratic obstacles each time he shows up. In the worst emergency, a trauma team unsuccessfully attempts to revive a teenage boy with a gunshot wound, and his body is wheeled into the morgue. There is no high drama surrounding this death; it is all in a day’s work.”