Screening of 'The Waiting Room' helps Touro's student-run clinic

By Rich Freedman/Times-Herald staff writer/
Posted:   02/10/2013 01:00:49 AM PST

A hospital's emergency room is not for the timid, the squeamish, or the faint of heart.

It is a point of constant patient-doctor-staff interaction and survival in what's often a precarious circumstance.

Peter Nicks saw the potential of filming those intimate moments of humanity with the documentary, "The Waiting Room," a bird's eye look into a fractured health care system.

More than 100 screenings of the 81-minute film later, Nicks remains ensconced in showcasing the behind-the-scenes look at Highlands Hospital in Oakland.

Nicks takes the documentary to Vallejo on Feb. 21, with a benefit screening at the Empress Theatre in downtown Vallejo. Sponsored by NorthBay Healthcare and Sutter Solano, proceeds benefit the student-run clinic from Touro University that offers free services Thursdays at the Norman C. King Community Center.

Under the banner "24 hours. 241 patients. One stretched ER," Nicks focuses on five patients at a facility that sees mostly uninsured patients.

Making various "Top 10 films to see" from the 2012 offerings has been gratifying to Nicks, an Emmy-winning former ABC News New York producer.

It's all about the audience's reaction, he said by phone recently.

"It's almost like a stunned silence" when the film concludes, Nicks said. "Then cheers. That is the feeling. People are shaken a little bit. It's quite profound to see the emotional impact."

Nicks said he's seen the film at least 200 times and can still get different nuances from it.

"It's definitely the kind of film you can see multiple times," he said. "There's so much going on. It's so layered. I can still not get bored and still feel it, which is pretty amazing."

Documentaries are often about tugging on a viewer's emotions and Nicks said he's achieved that with "The Waiting Room."

"I thought we had a film that would move people that was outside the mold of modern documentaries," he said. "I'm grateful the audience response has been constantly strong."

Emergency room waiting rooms "are such a universal experience," Nicks said. "Whether you're liberal or conservative, people often feel at the mercy of the system. We're all vulnerable."

Insured or not, procedures covered or not. It's often unbearable for many, Nicks said.

"The feeling of being part of a commercial enterprise," he added. "If you have insurance, you don't know what you're getting that you pay for. If you're uninsured, you get what they give you and hope you get treated with dignity."

Nicks discovered that "the system may be broken, but the people are not. I found resilience among the patient population and the height of empathy and skill among the caregivers."

Not unlike most films, "The Waiting Room" was difficult to edit, Nicks said.

"It was challenging. There was so much stuff. We filmed all over the hospital and it took six months just to sort it out and put the focus on the waiting room," Nicks said, adding that it took time for the film to "get legs."

"We didn't get into any big film festivals. It was rejected by 22 festivals," Nicks said, managing to laugh.

Sundance, the zenith of film fests, declined entry to "The Waiting Room."

"I thought we had a really good film and thought we'd get into Sundance," Nicks said. "They seemed to like the film. I was disappointed. There was some doubt."

Slowly, however, audience support and critical acclaim provided some buzz.

"You have to keep pushing," Nicks said. "I believed in the film and felt it would get noticed."

Showing both the patient anxiety and health care personnel frustration provided a balanced message.

"Doctors keep showing up, doing the best they can within a broken system," Nicks said, finding that physicians often feel as if they're "shoveling sand against the tide."

Nicks couldn't help but become emotionally involved with some of the people in the film.

"Seeing someone young being told a loved one passed away is incredibly difficult," Nicks said.

Highlands handles a significant number of victims of violence, which was also difficult to witness, the director said.

"The shootings are unbelievable and unreal," Nicks said.

"The Waiting Room" confronts several issues, he noted, from healthcare to the economy, to community violence and immigration.

"I could probably spend the rest of my life making films just at Highlands," said Nicks . "I think there's another film there that's as powerful or more powerful than 'The Waiting Room.' I feel like we only scratched the surface."

If you go ...

What: "The Waiting Room," a documentary screening, with director Peter Nicks

Why: Benefits student-run clinic at Touro University

When: Feb. 21, 7 p.m.

Where: Empress Theatre, 330 Virginia St., Vallejo

Tickets: $15 screening only; $50 for champagne reception and screening

Info:; (707) 638-5285