A Sneak Peek Inside Several Ground Zero Hospitals During Crisis

5 films take viewers inside hospitals during a time of crisis

By Sarah Wright,

Opinion Contributor



If you’ve been following one iota of news lately, then you know the nations’ hospitals are at a breaking point due to COVID-19. And yet, there are cinematic ways to take a sneak peak inside several ground zero hospitals from the comfort of your living room.

The simple reason I want you to see these hospitals stat is to bear witness to what health care workers do. While basic health literacy is sorely lacking throughout our country, my genuine hope is that these movies will treat what ails us and bring new insight to the personal and shared responsibilities of a post-pandemic world.

As an enthusiastic cinephile, I’m normally in a moviehouse this time of year, watching any number of Oscar-worthy performances. This year, I doubled down on DOC NYC’s film festival and fell hard for its entire schedule. When I say you must stream its cinematography award winner “76 Days,” what I mean is: do not miss this “must see” cinéma vérité; it was made for this precise moment.

"76 Days" documents the two and half month-long lockdown from January 23rd to April 8th earlier this year in Wuhan, China at the beginning of the global health crisis. I’ll be honest: my favorite scene is toward the end, when the camera peers directly into one of the access ports of an infant incubator. Be forewarned, though: “76 Days” will raise your blood pressure for 93 minutes, a surreal time-lapse of nearly 11 weeks as the whole world changed dramatically.

Closer to home, the Mount Sinai Center for Transgender Medicine and Surgery in New York City stars in Tania Cypriano’s 92-minute release, “Born to Be.” Leading the center’s efforts is physician Jess Ting, who we see talking with patients about everything from facial feminization surgery to phalloplasty. Much like his patients, Ting’s amazing bedside manner is only one facet of who he is; we also learn about his unique path to medicine. Spoiler alert: it cuts through the Julliard School of Music.

This documentary also includes everyone’s preferred pronouns, an au courant best practice given the subject matter. Highlighting different patients from all walks of life also makes the audience feel welcome right away. “Born to Be” asks the question: “when you see yourself, who do you see?” In a world of gravatars, curated social media profiles, and artificial intelligence, the question is timely.

Frederick Wiseman’s latest opus, “City Hall,” is also on my radar, but his fourth film captures East Harlem’s Metropolitan Hospital in black-and-white half a century ago. To watch “Hospital” now is to realize that much has changed for the better in emergency medicine and outpatient care, not to mention infection control and prevention. For one thing, ipecac is no longer recommended, though clearly used to treat a young man’s LSD overdose in the film. (Viewer discretion is strongly advised here; his vomitus is so violent, I almost threw up myself.) As well, diagnosis of schizophrenia now entails much more than what we see onscreen here. And in 1970, social determinants of health were far from recognized. Now that they are, who can ignore the fact that COVID-19 has disproportionately affected poor people and communities of color?

Frederick Wiseman will turn 91 on New Year’s Day; he’s well into his third act. Likewise, “Hospital” is part of a trilogy; the other two films are the notorious “Titicut Follies” and his end-of-life study “Near Death.” The former was shot in 1967 at Bridgewater State Hospital and the latter at Beth Israel Hospital in Boston, released in 1989. Wiseman is a living legend, and his entire catalog is available on Kanopy.

There is also the remarkable Netflix series “Lenox Hill,” which chronicles four doctors at the 450-bed facility on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Two are neurosurgeons, one’s the chief ob-gyn resident, and another is an emergency medicine physician. The brain surgery is graphic, the ob-gyn allows the filmmakers to document her own pregnancy and childbirth, and the ED doc briefly considers leaving for the suburbs as she too becomes a mother, only to recommit to city dwelling right before the pandemic leads to a certain exodus of its own. Doctors Langer, Boockvar, Macri, & Little-Richardson compassionately bring hope and healing to the hospital everyday. And to paraphrase a well-known doctor’s order, watch all nine episodes as prescribed!

Finally, given southern California’s recent stay-at-home order, the last stop on this tour is Pete Nicks’s “The Waiting Room: 24 Hours. 241 Patients. One stretched ER.” No doubt, the Oakland hospital featured here is even more stretched now than it was then, given falling ICU bed capacity due to the coronavirus. But just seeing what a typical day in a large public hospital’s emergency room looked like before the pandemic ought to be a wake up call for potential patients, i.e., everyone, everywhere.

Astronomical winter officially arrives in one week, after which the days start becoming longer and the nights shorter as spring approaches. As 2020 comes to a close, consider Florence Nightingale’s wry observation: “Hospitals are only an intermediate stage of civilization…never intended at all to take in the whole sick population.”

Sarah Wright is a graduate of The Catholic University of America. She did her social work field placement at St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, DC.


Published on Dec 17, 2020

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