Essential Workers

Lenox Hill, Frederick Wiseman, and Allan King document the medical profession

Lenox Hill, an eight-part documentary series released early last month on Netflix, brought us into the lives of four medical professionals in Lenox Hill Hospital, both its Upper East Side and Greenwich Village locations, in New York City. Adi Barash and Ruthie Schatz’s series is fairly conventional aesthetically and thematically: a kind of modern-day, nonfiction ER with much less of the soap-opera melodramatics but much more talking-head interviews and a New Age-y electronic score (by Uri Frost) to give it all an uplifting sheen.

But on June 24, the filmmakers released arguably its best installment: “Pandemic,” a special 32-minute episode that featured three of its central figures—Neurosurgery Chair David Langer, Neurosurgery Vice Chair John Boockvar, and Emergency Medicine nurse Mirtha Macri—dealing with the coronavirus pandemic as it descended onto the city and burst through the hospital’s walls. For people like myself who have so far escaped the worst of COVID-19, the toll this disease has taken on medical professionals has remained fairly abstract. “Pandemic” makes that physical and emotional toll viscerally raw and real.

 

Of course, the episode might not have had quite the same impact if we hadn’t had a chance to live with these characters’ hopes, dreams, and disappointments in the previous eight episodes. Lenox Hill is certainly worth seeing, especially since it speaks directly to contemporary concerns about racial diversity and the frustrations of the United States’ profoundly flawed healthcare system. But the series also deserves to be considered alongside two other great older documentaries that consider doctors and patients dealing with life and death: Frederick Wiseman’s monumental 1989 film Near Death and Allan King’s powerful 2003 film Dying at Grace. (Both films are available to stream on Kanopy with a library subscription; King’s film is also available to stream on the Criterion Channel.)

Dying at Grace is perhaps closest to Lenox Hill, emotionally speaking. Instead of focusing on doctors and nurses, King’s film focuses on five patients at the Toronto Grace Health Centre’s Palliative Care unit, following all of them up to their deaths. Just like Barash and Schatz don’t spare us from gory invasive surgery shots in Lenox Hill, King doesn’t shy away from depicting the ups and downs of these patients, allowing us to see some of them at their liveliest before their terminal illnesses brutally snatch them away.

In that sense, the arc of Eda Simac, whose dying breaths provide the film’s gut-punch conclusion, is the film’s most devastating, as we see her at her sunniest and most optimistic just before her condition deteriorates. It’s that close-up intimacy that Dying at Grace shares with Lenox Hill, though King’s filmmaking touch is slightly more hands-off. There is, for instance, no music to underscore emotional moments in Dying at Grace, though the warmth of the director’s gaze still shines through.

By comparison, the legendary Frederick Wiseman takes a drier, near-anthropological approach in his six-hour Near Death, set at the Beth Israel Medical Center’s Intensive Care unit in Boston. Obviously, eyebrows will be raised at its sheer length (and no, there is no intermission), but Wiseman justifies it with the depth and wealth of detail he uncovers. Structurally speaking, like Dying at Grace, Near Death is a series of case studies, though Wiseman focuses equally on the responses of both doctors and patients. But true to his fly-on-the-wall form (an approach he has steadfastly stuck to since his 1967 debut Titicut Follies), Wiseman doesn’t feature any talking-heads interviews, allowing the human behavior he captures to speak for itself.

 

Among the film’s many extraordinary sequences are lengthy scenes of doctors and patients’ relatives deliberating over whether to keep a loved one alive or let them die as peacefully and painlessly as possible. Such a decision is surely an agonizingly difficult one for anyone to make in the moment. Wiseman allows us to feel the full weight of such a determination simply by refusing to cut away.

But there’s a more philosophical and spiritual side to Near Death at which Lenox Hill only hints. In addition to doctor-and-patient scenes and behind-the-scenes boardroom meetings, Wiseman also features occasional conversations between doctors in which they argue about professional matters: the ethics of following patients’ express wishes vs. doing what the doctor feels is best for the patient, for example, as well as the ways these medical professionals struggle to maintain hope amid an environment in which they’re constantly surrounded by death. A crucial exchange occurs towards the end of the film between a doctor and a nurse in which both express varying degrees of idealism and despair over their jobs. For the doctor, his belief in God can only do so much to compensate for the weariness he feels at basically being a shepherd for the dying. “There’s nothing more discouraging than this,” he says before trailing off.

A bleak sentiment indeed—but by simply presenting it to us unvarnished, Wiseman, if anything, allows our admiration to grow for these medical professionals trying to help all of us get through difficult times, perhaps at great physical and psychological cost to themselves. Consider Near Death, Dying at Grace, and Lenox Hill, then, as a collective tribute to these most essential of essential workers, especially during this historic, and historically difficult, time in our nation’s history.

Kenji Fujishima

Kenji Fujishima is a writer and editor based in New York City. He has previously written about film for publications including Village Voice, Slant Magazine, and Paste, and about theater for TheaterMania.

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