In 1986, Congress passed legislation saying that ERs have to take in everyone, so public hospitals have become our low-income health safety net. Former President George W. Bush once said, “People have access to health care in America. After all, you just go to an emergency room.”
That’s exactly what the majority of Americans are left with. ER waiting rooms are bursting at the seams. Praise be to our adrenaline-fueled ER doctors who do what they do out of a deep sense of service.
Imagine emergency-room gunshot and stab-wound stress; then imagine working an 80-hour week, running on fumes, all while filming the whole experience. That’s what physician, filmmaker, and recovered lymphoma patient Dr. Ryan McGarry did. And that’s “Code Black.”
Actually, “code black” is the Los Angeles County Hospital color-code for an overflowing ER waiting room. “Code blue” is low-volume. But if a 1 is a heart attack and 4 is a common cold, today’s hospital waiting rooms are packed with 2’s who all have to wait hours for treatment.
People are at their limit. Which is why these super-docs crafted this superb documentary. It’s a cry for help. Our U.S. healthcare system is about to break down.
Birth of Emergency Medicine
“Code Black” grants us a doc’s-eye view of America’s ground-zero emergency department: L.A. County Hospital’s “C-booth,” where, according to McGarry, more people have died and been saved than in almost any other square footage in America.
First we meet a team of young ER physicians. Dr. Dave Pomeranz has an adrenaline-junkie hobby: mountaineering. Jamie Eng, M.D.—she always wanted to be like the cool senior staff in the trauma ward, who had it all under control. Danny Cheng, M.D., says that as an Asian immigrant, his choices in life were doctor, lawyer, or world-class pianist. Dad subscribed to “Where there’s a will there’s an ‘A.'” Otherwise, it was spanking time. All these type-A doctors share a deep desire to serve.
Due to earthquake code, the 1930s-built L.A. County General Hospital was forced to rebuild, and so we meet these young doctors as they transition to a more spacious, state-of-the-art facility.
But not before we’re exposed to a viewing of the full-on onslaught of the original C-booth. C-booth is “ER” on steroids in the sense that no TV show can capture the real-deal noise, highly organized commotion, ripped-apart (sometimes dead) human bodies, blood-soaked scrubs and shoes of exhausted doctors, and repeated calling of times of death.
C-booth is an emotional gut-punch. If we hadn’t already had our sensibilities blunted by “ER,” “Chicago Hope,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” endless gruesome “CSI” episodes, and the long lineup of cinematic ER situations over the last 20 years, C-booth would be slightly unbearable.
But we have, and are thereby freed, in a sense, to focus on the complex topics, controversies, problems, and debates presented here.
White-Collar Red Tape
In the wake of the rebuilding, a new ER culture rises; policies, documentation, and crushing regulations encroach like strangling vines. Doctors are forced to log in, ad infinitum. As McGarry says, “I feel like I should log in to go to the bathroom.”
In the words of one senior staff physician, “The regulations have come home to roost.” And quality care sailed out the window.
Paperwork is white-collar work. ER doctors and extreme type-A, adrenaline-fueled special-forces military warriors alike talk about the fact that their professions really consist of blue-collar grunt-work. Neither group has any interest in status or money. Navy SEALs fight to the death, and ER doctors fight for life; both situations are a bloody war, and the bonds between teammates are equally strong.
The day of the “cowboy ER doctor” is over, in part, due to a desire for privacy and dignity. It’s a valid point. A male nurse agonizes quietly about the fact that he had to show a woman her recently deceased mother, stationed on a gurney, for lack of space, in a room containing used urinals and bedpans, with a psychotic patient screaming obscenities in the next room.
“Code Black” won for Best Documentary at both 2013’s Los Angeles Film Festival and the Hamptons International Film Festival. It’s a crying shame this fine film has such minimal distribution. It should be a blockbuster. What’s more important in the United States today: the Incredible Hulk, or the incredibly horrendous state of U.S. healthcare?
A four-star rating means the reviewer was on the edge of his seat. Five stars mean the reviewer looks forward to multiple viewings. There won’t be a second viewing of “Code Black,” but it’s definitely edge-of-the-seat material. It gets five stars for being an outstanding labor-of-love project, having beginner’s-luck brilliance in its ability to captivate, and for containing in-depth subject matter of great importance.
“Code Black” is showing in New York City at the IFC Center. For nationwide listings visit codeblackmovie.com.
UPDATE: Code Black has now been made into a TV show.
Director: Ryan McGarry
Run Time: 1 hour, 40 minutes
Release Date: June 20
5 stars out of 5