Dr. Mirtha Macri in Lenox Hill. Photo: Courtesy of Netflix
A special episode of Netflix’s gripping docuseries Lenox Hill opens during the week in early March when many Americans began their coronavirus quarantine. In “Pandemic,” which premieres next Wednesday, Lenox Hill Hospital’s board and department leadership pack into a conference room to plan for the inevitable: By that time, the coronavirus had spread from China to Europe and had entered the United States, threatening New York City on a massive, yet-to-be-seen scale. When the cameras start rolling in the hospital on March 9, the emergency room is already short on masks for its workers, and doctors, though calm and steady, appear filled with dread as they discuss the diagnostically elusive virus.
A week or so earlier, filmmakers and life partners Ruthie Shatz and Adi Barash were at home experiencing similar anxiety. As news of the pandemic dominated the news cycle more and more, they thought about the everyday heroes at Lenox Hill Hospital whom they had followed for 19 months to make Lenox Hill.
Shatz and Barash finished filming inside the hospital last November, and they turned in all eight episodes of the docuseries to Netflix in February, but they started wondering if they should begin shooting again. Their previous documentary work spans over two decades, most recently on two Israeli series, Ichilov and Ambulance, which followed nurses and paramedics.
“Adi felt that if something really big was happening, something biblical or historical, we had to be with our doctors,” Shatz said. “At that point, we didn’t talk to anyone about it, but we called the hospital and we told them we felt it was an important moment and they all agreed with us. They granted us access very quickly because they knew what our ethics are and that we would be very respectful in this very tense time.”
For 33 days over two months, Barash reported alone to Lenox Hill. The crew for the initial series was never large — two people in addition to Barash and Shatz — but this time, Barash worked by himself. Accompanied by an American Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) representative, Barash filmed, handled the audio, and managed patient relations, all while worrying about safety protocols he learned from the doctors at every turn. He carried his own sanitizer, took advantage of the Purell available in the hospital hallways, and spent much of his time disinfecting his camera, his microphones, his hands, and his face.
“It was like a huge, silent, invisible tsunami coming,” Barash said. “Not knowing what to expect, I had to conduct myself precisely. The first few days were horrifying because you just didn’t know what to do. You thought it was in the air. You thought it was in the droplets. You didn’t want to touch anything. You didn’t touch elevators. You were constantly putting on Purell or disinfecting and changing clothes. You did what everybody else was doing, but times ten.”
Once it was time to go home, Barash felt more scared, his mind racing with a running list of worries. “I need to get in the car, I need to clean the camera, I need to go home to my family,” he recalled. “I was always thinking, How can I disinfect myself and clean myself and shower and clean my clothes?” Shatz didn’t allow Barash to isolate himself by sleeping in his office, so they took a “funny inventory” when he arrived and did everything they could to sanitize him and their home.
“The first few days were really extreme in that way, but seeing how the doctors were performing, how resilient they were, how efficient with this massive event coming their way, it was really inspiring,” he said. “I was thinking, If this is a war, these are my commanders and they’re going in the front of the line. They’re not in a bunker hiding. It was very moving emotionally for me.”
Barash and Shatz agreed he would not film patients who were unconscious, and always ask patients directly for permission to include them in footage. In several scenes in the episode, Barash accompanies doctors as they check on patients who are fighting for their lives against the coronavirus. In others, he films as doctors inform families that their loved ones are going to pass. “We made a decision not to go in very sensitive areas, but Adi, when he was filming, was in all the infected areas,” Shatz said. “At the beginning it was so scary, but he was so driven. We felt it was important to show the behind-the-scenes of what the doctors were doing.”
The episode serves as a historical document of the early days of a nation in shock. “In the beginning, no one has masks at the [hospital] meeting, and then as it slowly grows, people aren’t understanding what’s happening,” Shatz said. “Then it grows into this loneliness and this fear. You don’t know where it’s going. How will our lives unfold? We wanted to encapsulate this moment in time and, as filmmakers, we will deal with the later, later.”
Although the pandemic is far from over, Barash’s careful disinfection regime paid off: He and his family are virus-free. The risks he took, they both agree, were worth it.
“You can’t go out to be a filmmaker only when it’s convenient,” Barash said. “It was an important place to be, so it was about figuring out how to come out of a very tense situation, almost crippling, and find power in it. As wary as I was, I knew that I had to keep focusing and doing the job and following what the doctors and teams were doing to get the job done. It’s weird to say, but I was in my element. This is where I find my story and it’s my retreat.”