H ighland Hospital serves Oakland’s Alameda County. It’s a public-service facility and, according to a nurse in the new documentary “The Waiting Room,” a place of last resort. The film runs just beyond 80 minutes, and, in its 24-hour span, captures a great deal of stress and worry and wincing — and that’s just on the faces of the staff. The movie observes the general misery of needing serious medical treatment and the particular awfulness of needing medical treatment you can’t pay for.
The crowds shown fuming, groaning, bewildered in that waiting room, desperate for a doctor’s attention, offer an unhappy reality: Alameda County teems with last resort. Smokers, drinkers, drug users, the overweight, the innocent, the unlucky sit side by side hoping for the best. Not every explanation is medical or solicited. One kind and hug-dispensing staffer finds herself chastising a profane young patient and venturing an astrological diagnosis: “You a Scorpio?”
The film, which was directed by Peter Nicks, isn’t a work of activism and reportorial investigation. The earnest, folksy music that opens the movie doesn’t accurately represent the work of warm and serene nonfiction that follows. It’s an eavesdropped snapshot of a system that doesn’t work, yet does. The cross section of life that drifts in and out is specific to the Bay Area’s utopia in one sense — every race you can imagine seeking help and providing it (the movie’s website says 241 patients passed through in those 24 hours). But that diversity is an indication of how, ideally, the so-called social safety net catches us all.
Highland seems understaffed and underfunded. There aren’t enough beds, and often men, women, and children are forced to occupy them longer than might be necessary — the waiting doesn’t necessarily end after leaving the waiting room’s limbo. The staff tries to smooth away bottlenecks, but, in an emergency room populated with people waiting with easily treatable conditions, bottlenecks seem inevitable. Talk of someone who just endured a seven-hour wait for Tylenol sounds like tragedy, farce, and myth. The triage system creates eternal waits based on the appearance of urgency. A man sitting with his family and a two-day-old gunshot wound waits for hours while a 15-year-old boy with an apparently more dire gunshot wound dies on an operating table.
But when a patient can see a doctor or a nurse, the harriedness dissipates just enough to glean that the care at Highland appears to be serious, thorough, and compassionate. The suffering seem grateful to have answers; the staff seems grateful to deliver them. A few months ago, there was a film about the crisis in American health care called “Escape Fire,” which lacked the competence and focus to do more than rant. Nicks hails from the more gently insinuating area of the documentary spectrum. He has more in common with Frederick Wiseman than he does with any of the hacky propagandists who’ve hijacked a political wing of nonfiction filmmaking with crude works of advocacy and social engagement. Nicks isn’t lobbying. He’s storytelling. The aggregation of those stories becomes its own editorial.