It's not too often we get to see American hospital documentaries over here. There are a few differences
By Anita Singh10 June 2020 • 3:30pm
Netflix takes us inside New York's Lenox Hill hospital. CREDIT: Netflix
Long ago, I worked in a hospital. It was easy to tell the surgeons from the other consultants: the surgeons had the better suits and the bigger egos. Lenox Hill, a new eight-part Netflix documentary following the staff of a New York City hospital, has found two excellent case studies. The series opens with David Langer, chair of neurosurgery, explaining how he took this “old ladies’ hospital” and transformed it into a centre of excellence. “I took way more risks than I should have. Luckily for me, I had the balls to take that first dive.”
His fellow neurosurgeon, John Boockvar, is similarly blessed in the self-confidence department. Confidence, of course, is exactly what you want to find in the doctor who’s about to operate on your brain. It also makes for good television. Watching Lenox Hill as a British viewer, you automatically make comparisons with British hospital documentaries. Initial observations are that a British hospital would probably have told its neurosurgeons not to yell: “This is not good news! F---!” in front of the cameras when considering a patient’s prognosis.
The two other staff members chosen as the series focus are Mirtha Macri, an A&E doctor, and Amanda Little-Richardson, an obstetrician. While Boockvar and Langer make life or death decisions, Macri and Little-Richardson deal with the more mundane: delivering babies, treating the homeless. The women talk of caring, compassion and empathy; they are also pregnant, so their personal lives and relationships are to the fore. The men stay in masters of the universe mode.
As the series wears on, though, we see how much Langer and Boockvar care for their patients. When a 16-year-old girl from a poor background comes in with a brain tumour, and health insurance won’t cover the operation, Langer essentially works for free. The girl, he says, reminds him of his daughter.
Some of the patients appear throughout the series, including fabulous New York dame Phyllis. “You’re gonna get staples in your head and good drugs,” is how Boockvar sells surgery to her. Afterwards, he asks if she feels any weakness on her left side. “I don’t know, I’d have to punch you to tell you,” she replies. It is a documentary, but you find yourself taking the characters to heart – patients and doctors alike – as if you were watching a drama.