The Waiting Room is like a punch to the gut for people cast off and left out of our U.S. medical care system, what some call the best in the world. When Democrats and Republicans vie for your votes and debate healthcare reform, remember that these are not the people they are talking about. Most don’t even notice the plight of those at the bottom — this ugly underside. But our politicians, and the billionaires who set their agenda, should be made to watch this documentary, because these are the 47 percent they talk about — the people left out of the American Dream. They’re real people.
This character-driven documentary film uses unprecedented access to go behind the doors of Oakland’s Highland Hospital, a safety-net hospital fighting for survival while weathering the storm of a persistent economic downturn. Stretched to the breaking point, Highland is the primary care facility for 250,000 patients of nearly every nationality, race, and religion, with 250 patients – most of them uninsured – crowding its emergency room every day. Using a blend of cinema verité and characters’ voiceover, the film offers a raw, intimate, and often uplifting look at how patients, staff and caregivers cope with disease, bureaucracy, frustration, hope and hard choices during one typically hectic day.
The ER waiting room serves as the grounding point for the film, capturing in vivid detail what it means for millions of Americans to live without health insurance. Young victims of gun violence take their turn alongside artists and uninsured small business owners. Steel workers, cab drivers and international asylum seekers crowd the halls. (movie trailer follows)
The film weaves together several stories from the hundreds being played out in the waiting room: a frightened child with a dangerous case of strep throat, a young man with a testicular tumor in desperate need of surgery, as well as those suffering from chronic conditions such as alcohol and drug abuse, heart disease, and diabetes. We also meet the overwhelmed hospital staff who cope with under-staffing, insufficient beds, and a never-ending stream of ER patients who jump to the head of the line of those sitting in the waiting room. As one doctor says, Highland is “the institution of last resort for so many people.”
In one story, Davelo Lujuan, a hard-working contractor, had been laying rug for almost 30 years but is now losing work and income and is facing foreclosure on his house. He’s struggling to support a daughter and grandchild, has zero money in the bank and just $80 in his pocket. He came into the ER for treatment for debilitating back pain that makes it almost impossible to work. Without insurance, he won’t be getting an operation, just pain meds, and has no real way out. He jokes, “I did just buy a lottery ticket.”
The Waiting Room lays bare the struggle and determination of both a community and an institution functioning with limited resources and no road map for navigating a health care landscape marked by historic economic and political dysfunction. Through this story of one hospital and its multifaceted community, the film powerfully and poignantly illustrates the common vulnerability to illness that binds us together as humans. But in a nation such as ours, it seems criminal that safety nets like these are facing budget cuts every year.
The Waiting Room Story Telling Project
The Waiting Room experience extends beyond the screen. The Waiting Room Storytelling Project is a location-based social media and community engagement initiative that aims to improve the patient experience through the collection and sharing of digital content. This cultural data – video, data visualizations, photographs and text – is collected in the waiting room by creating frameworks for sharing that range from anonymous expressions of feeling to deeper storytelling.
The primary aim of the platform is to uncover the needs of underserved patients at a moment when the role of the “Safety Net” is being debated both in America and abroad. The project also aims to develop tools for patients that allow them to take a more active role in their health care experience.