The directors of ‘Lenox Hill’ return with another riveting documentary series on the high-stress world of medical New York.
By John Anderson
March 28, 2023 5:45 pm ET
One of the better documentary series in the annals of Netflix was 2020’s “Lenox Hill,” an exhilarating, multi-episodic exploration of the eponymous New York hospital and a multi-character story rich in high-stakes medicine and dedicated people. The lingering dread? That there might be a sequel. An obligatory, perfunctory sequel.
But like a couple of creative obstetricians, Israeli filmmakers Ruthie Shatz and Adi Barash have instead delivered “Emergency NYC,” a healthy, bouncing, eight-part spinoff that looks at the medical system not only from the perspective of doctors in operating theaters but that of emergency medical technicians, helicopter nurses, trauma doctors, pediatric surgeons, transport coordinators and the patients they’re dragging back from the brink of death. It’s not better than “Lenox Hill,” necessarily. It has its own system, its own level of tension. And lots of it. Things happen that can’t possibly have been foreseen, even by filmmakers already chronicling the routinely amazing/appalling goings-on in medical New York.
Seeing a tumor the size of a walnut plucked out of someone’s brain, or watching a days-old infant having his misaligned organs repositioned, or monitoring—episode after episode—the painfully slow progress of a 17-year-old shooting victim will have viewers holding their breath, maybe looking away. “Emergency NYC” goes a little deeper into the gore than “Lenox Hill” did, but it would seem impossible to divorce oneself from the humanity that’s also being exposed and the chest-constricting effect of the drama, something of which the filmmakers are well aware: After absorbing whatever chaos has been captured—in an operating room, a helicopter, a brutally congested hospital corridor or the aftermath of a hit-and-run on a New York street—the eye is invariably taken skyward, drone-ward, providing a moment to breathe, to unclench, maybe to reflect. An optical palate cleanser.
Some of the faces will be familiar—neurosurgeons David Langer and John Boockvar were principal characters in “Lenox Hill,” as was Mirtha Macri, a doctor based at the Lenox Hill outpost in Greenwich Village, where the series occasionally makes a house call. Jose Prince, a pediatric surgeon working at the Cohen Children’s Medical Center in Queens, emerges as an empathetic star of this series. (All the facilities included in “Emergency NYC” are associated with the monolithic Northwell Health, including SkyHealth, the helicopter transport service; this, presumably, accounts for the filmmakers’ astonishing access.) Ambulance drivers Kristina McKoy and Vicky Ulloa are a wry Greek chorus racing to get whomever wherever. (The cinematographers were probably grateful they were in the backseat, most of the time.) One of the more hair-raising sequences is the cross-country retrieval of a donor liver for a dying woman in New York, who needs the organ before her brain starts shutting down. Nobody can move as quickly as he or she wants. And the clock is ticking.
Everyone who is fortunate enough to come into contact with the doctors in “Emergency NYC” is already an unfortunate, but some are less lucky than others. “I don’t see how he can live more than six, 12 months,” Dr. Boockvar concedes, having opened up the brainpan of a patient and removed a tumor the size and shape of a portobello mushroom. He’s not wrong. He wishes he were.
The Covid-19 pandemic is a presence in “Emergency NYC.” Not only is everyone masked most of the time, which often makes the dialogue less than intelligible; the virus haunts the medicine: As is pointed out routinely, especially by Dr. Macri—who gets much more “walk-in” traffic at the former St. Vincent’s than they would uptown at Lenox Hill—the doctors and nurses and pilots and drivers are dealing with a population due for a checkup. People have largely neglected their health for the past few years due to fear and lockdowns, and they are now feeling the effects. As is the system.
Viruses may come and go, but gun violence is, was and apparently ever shall be a constant for the people of “Emergency NYC,” who tell us matter-of-factly what a bullet does when it penetrates a body, bursts into fragments, perforates a liver or ruins a spine. “Joseph thinks he’s going to walk again,” says a beleaguered, bummed-out Dr. Langer, having consulted with a patient, who was shot in the back and has little chance of regaining his mobility. “Dr. Langer’s gonna fix it,” says the determinedly upbeat Joseph, which only makes Dr. Langer feel worse. “Miracles do happen,” Dr. Boockvar says at one point, with no conviction whatsoever: There’s a world of reality TV out there, but little of it is more real than “Emergency NYC.”