'Waiting Room': Hundreds a Day Seek Hospital of 'Last Resort'

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Highland Hospital Staff Have 'War Mentality'

In such a high-stress environment, it would seem logical that doctors and nurses would also burn out. But Nicks said, "We didn't see a ton of that."

"What's more revealing is that these doctors at public hospitals are a very unique group of people, a self-selecting group. They could choose to go elsewhere and make a lot more money, but they don't. It's akin to M*A*S*H*, like they are in a war -- they have that mentality."

"They love it, thrive on it," said Nicks. "You have to be wired a certain way to treat someone with empathy that smells and curses at you."

Nicks didn't want his film to be a typical "disaster documentary" like "Waiting for Superman" or "Sicko," but storytelling.

"At this moment the health care debate voices are dominated by journalists and politicians and pundits," he said. "This is the voice of the people on the front lines."

"The waiting room was a metaphor for me," he said. "What are you waiting for? It really struck me that people wanted to talk about who they were."

Nicks dispels the myth that safety-net hospitals are free. The carpet layer with bone spurs who finally sees a specialist, but earns just a little too much to qualify for Charity Care, takes home a large bill for Highland's services.

Nicks shot 175 hours of raw footage over months, but captures just a day in the life of several characters in the hospital waiting room.

He previously worked as a staff producer for ABC News, as well as for the PBS series, "Life 360."

"Some of the best scenes were not in the film," said Nicks. "In the end we wanted to make sure the patient population was represented in a diverse and accurate way."

Now he is creating an interactive digital project to continue the work of the film so people in waiting rooms across the country can share their own stories. "We want to collect cultural data that is valuable for the hospital," said Nicks.

Most of all, he said he hopes that the film will bring attention to the nation's ailing healthcare system just as the United States begins to roll out the contentious Affordable Care Act.

"I am not a policy expert and not even remotely a healthcare journalist," he said. "But what we do know from talking to people is that there is a lot going on behind the scenes … It's important to understand how the health care law affects the community and those served by the public hospitals."

As for Demia Bruce, his daughter was luckier than the son he lost at the age of 2 from a seizure. She was diagnosed with strep throat, given antibiotics and sent home.

Carl Connelly, whose drug addiction had sent him to Highland on repeated occasions, could not be released because the pastor who has given him shelter would not take him back. Connelly took up precious space in a bed that might have been given to another waiting patient.

The story of Eric Morgan, who is last seen standing alone and bewildered in the hospital parking lot, ends well, according to Nicks. Morgan was able to wade through the system and qualify for Charity Care and a $30,000 surgery revealed his tumor was not cancerous.

Morgan, who had banked sperm just in case, has since married the woman who accompanied him in such distress to Highland and they now live and work in Hawaii.

"We are all connected," said Nicks. "And we can't forget that. Insured or not, we must share the same values."

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