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

PHOTO: Eric Morgan has been sent to the emergency room because he has no insurance and doctors suspect testicular cancer.
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Eric Morgan, in his 20s and planning to get married, arrives at Highland Hospital's emergency room, shaken that he has been diagnosed with a testicular tumor that is likely cancer.

Surgeons at a private hospital have turned him away for lack of insurance but tell him it's "urgent" he get care.

Demia Bruce -- out of work for a year -- anxiously waits in the same ER with his 5-year-old daughter, her face swollen and burning with fever.

Carl Connelly has overdosed on drugs and alcohol, and Davelo Lujuan can't bear the pain of his spinal bone spurs. They, too, wait.

A provocative new documentary, "The Waiting Room," is a snapshot of Highland Hospital in Oakland, Calif., one of the nation's busiest safety-net hospitals, which is stretched to the limit with 241 patients a day, mostly uninsured, who need medical care they can't afford.

The film, directed by Peter Nicks and getting Oscar buzz, opens at the IFC Center in New York City on Wednesday, Sept. 26 and in the greater Los Angeles area at Laemmle Theaters in Santa Monica, Pasadena and Claremont on Friday, Sept. 28, before showing around the country. "The Waiting Room" will also be aired by PBS in 2013.

Nicks follows 24 hours in the lives of artists, small business owners, factory workers and unemployed parents who have been hit hard by the economy -- and hit harder still by a healthcare system that has left them out.

"Bring your breakfast, lunch and dinner -- everything honey," an African-American patient who has been waiting for days to see a doctor, tells a new arrival.

They take a number and they wait, sometimes coming back two or three days in a row. It might be months before they can get a doctor's appointment. With only one operating room, the most urgent cases go first and the rest wait. A man with a survivable gunshot wound has waited two days to be seen.

"It is the place of last resort," said Nicks, 44, whose wife is a speech therapist at Highland Hospital and came home with stories of patients' troubled lives.

"Historically, these hospitals serve the indigent, the homeless and the mentally ill -- the population on the fringe of the system," said Nicks.

But today, patients who are down on their luck also come in to have their prescriptions refilled or to be hospitalized when a disease like diabetes has escalated.

"These people are using the waiting room as their doctor because they have no continuity of care," he said. "More and more people are losing their jobs and are showing up at the public hospitals."

One Asian immigrant stopped taking his blood pressure medicine because of the cost and had a stroke.

Lujuan, a carpet layer who took a pay cut, bemoans his life as an unemployed daughter moves back home. He returns to Highland for his back pain: "I can't sleep at night -- the muscle relaxers don't work… My checking account is down. I don't know what to do."

Some of the best-trained doctors in the country, from schools like Harvard Medical, do their residencies in trauma at Highland, according to Nicks. Though the care is exemplary, these safety-net institutions are at risk for survival.

Florida's Gov. Rick Scott has waged a campaign to cut safety-net hospitals to close budget deficits. Just last March, he closed A.G. Holley hospital, a 100-bed institution in Palm Beach County specializing in tuberculosis. In April, a TB outbreak among the homeless caused 13 deaths.

Those who wait and those who work long hours to care for them cope with sickness, bureaucracy, frustration and difficult choices, but Nicks finds hope in the system. The nurse assistant who is the patient's first point of contact, Cynthia Johnson, has both compassion and humor in this overwhelming environment -- and the patience of Job.

Johnson, a cheerful African-American with pink glasses, takes pride in being able to "spell every name, no matter what country."

Some patiently wait in line and others jump the queue, losing tempers and swearing at the overburdened staff.

"Get a grip," Johnson firmly tells one aggravated man, without losing her temper. He waits.

To director Nicks, she is the "symbol of the system and what we all want in our care -- an empathetic, caring individual, who sits down next to you and says, 'How are you doing?'"

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