Thursday, September 4, 2014
Early in the documentary Code Black there is this graphic and harrowing shot above. More than a dozen emergency medics and nurses work on a shooting victim as the director, narrator and the film's principal subject, Ryan McGarry explains, "If you're an outsider, this looks like total chaos. But I see unity in that chaos. There's a team here coming together to save someone's life." It's a flabbergasting statement to say the least. But as Code Black unfolds we learn that this is no ordinary emergency room. It's C-Booth, a cramped, very public space in LA County Hospital that has the dual distinction of being the nation's very first emergency room and its busiest. McGarry started documenting his time there as a first-year resident, way before he ever decided to turn the footage into a film. What he turned in, though, is polished bordering on slick, a sharp contrast to the frequently catastrophic roughness the doctors at C-Booth encounter daily.
For the most part, McGarry stays objective as he reveals what would motivate someone like himself and his co-workers to "work twice as hard for half the pay," as Dr. Dave Pomeranz puts it. McGarry delves into the different life experiences that brought each of them to LA County, including his own college-age bout with stage IV cancer. He discusses how the hallowed training ground where "more people have died and more people have been saved than in any other square footage in the United States" also fueled a passion in him and the other quirky overachievers that make up the staff.
Then, an interruption as McGarry leaves the hospital to continue his training elsewhere before returning as a senior resident to LA County Hospital's new digs—shiny, spacious, much more conscious of privacy, but ultimately antiseptic. If McGarry has an axe to grind, then it is here where he shows it. The movie briefly shifts from compelling reportage about the facilities and people that constitute a busy emergency room to anti-government agitprop contra the regulatory practices that modern medical professionals must conform to today. McGarry and his other type-A colleagues chafe under the increasing amount of rules and paperwork that they feel hamper their care for their patients. While some salient points are made that might make you empathize with these particularly gifted doctors, Code Black does not sufficiently convince that the alternative of deregulation would serve patients across the rest of the country—where quality healthcare of the kind found in LA County is less assured—any better.