'Code Black': Riveting documentary set in L.A. ER
The opening shots of Code Black, Ryan McGarry's riveting, you-are-there documentary about life and death in the emergency room of Los Angeles County/USC Medical Center, look like total chaos. Imagine a body on a gurney, blood oozing from the chest cavity, rolled into the middle of a rush-hour subway car, people jostling, yammering, trying to move to the exits, and the doors opening and more people squeezing in.
Except it's not a subway car. It's the storied "C-booth" of the old County Hospital, with residents and attending physicians, nurses, med students, EMTs, and orderlies doing this crazy dance, all with the goal of saving a stranger's life.
McGarry is one of those resident doctors, and his film is a must-see for anyone concerned about the state of health care in this country. Which should be all of us.
"Code Black" is the term used by staffers when the ER is overflowing - which is, in a public hospital in a county of 10 million people, most of the time.
During filming (handheld, intimate, intense), the giant 1934 County Hospital building where McGarry and his fellow residents worked closed, and a new, adjacent facility opened. (The old structure wasn't up to earthquake code.) This wasn't just a physical shift for the ER teams, it was a psychic one: The new facility was designed to give patients more privacy, more dignity, but it also served to isolate doctors from patients. More time looking at computers, filling out forms. Less time spent with gunshot victims, people with head injuries, heart attacks, children with dire skin rashes, the elderly with back pain, diabetics in distress.
McGarry and his colleagues come across as men and women of remarkable passion and purpose. There are lamentations about the "crushing regulations," funding and staffing shortfalls, the bureaucracy. The hospital's ER does not turn anyone away, but in a city where many are uninsured, where the hospital is the only place for the working poor to go for medical care, patients can wait as long as 18 hours - in pain, in a crowded room, a kid sitting next to someone in the midst of a psychotic episode.
Code Black is sobering stuff. The American health system, McGarry's film argues, is broken. But the film is undeniably inspiring, too: Despite everything that is wrong, there are nurses and doctors and technicians determined to do things right.