Code Black is not for the claustrophobic or queasy. At least at the beginning: The documentary opens with a scene from the Los Angeles County Hospital’s “C-Booth,” which looks like an airless room of chaos filled with blood, guts, and scalpels. It’s the intense treatment area that birthed the modern emergency room, and though it was recently replaced with a new, up-to-date facility, the medical personnel who worked there have been as deeply, indelibly affected as a soldier who’s faced combat.
One of those employees is the film’s director, Ryan McGarry, M.D. When McGarry began filming, he was a senior resident at C-Booth. Like many of the other doctors and residents interviewed, McGarry describes the atmosphere with both horror and elation, as if it were a drug that, post-addiction, he’d never stop thinking about. C-Booth had no privacy and no organized gurney placement system; the most critical patients were wheeled in, seen by a doctor, and treated immediately instead of languishing in a waiting room. It was training by fire. Another resident, Jamie, states the obvious: “Emergency medicine calls a certain type of person to work there.”
How McGarry managed to film in the middle of that melee is a mystery, but the footage is astonishing. Code Black is only partly focused on C-Booth, though. Once the film switches to the new digs, the doctors and nurses face an entirely different kind of calamity: red tape.
If you’ve ever sat on an ER bed for a twisted ankle and wondered why it seemed like hours passed between one person or another attending to your case, it’s probably because they were filling out forms. McGarry estimates that it takes about 50 to 60 forms to get a patient checked in, treated, and discharged. Doctors don’t see people in the overflowing waiting room—they see a list of names, ages, ailments, and grades of severity. Over and over again, they have to log onto and off of computers. (Imagine dealing with the maddening technology that spurred the Office Space guys to beat a copier to death, except someone’s life is on the line.)
The term “health care crisis” is repeated frequently throughout Code Black (the title refers to the ER exceeding its patient capacity), and it applies to much of what hinders these medical professionals—a lack of funds, an overabundance of policy requirements, staff that number too few, shifts that stretch too long. People who are turned away from private hospitals must be treated at county ones. Yes, it sure does take a certain type of person to work there.
McGarry’s first directorial effort is eye-opening, and though it inevitably gets political, it leans rose-colored instead of divisive. The talking heads say things like “I’m just a young doctor…” or “I don’t know much about politics…” to soften their opinions and assertions that “you gotta believe” that C-Booth “simply did what was right.” Hearing the stories of how so many residents chose their profession gets a little tiresome, but their perspectives unite in a powerful chorus: They all started with ideals (and idealism), but ended up turning into secretaries.