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Living in Canada, it’s hard to imagine being in a position where you’d have to choose between buying groceries and paying for medicine or vital medical treatment. Unfortunately in the United States, that’s exactly the decision that many citizens struggle with each and every day.

This sad truth is eloquently highlighted in Peter Nicks’ fly-on-the-wall documentary The Waiting Room , in which an Oakland, California public hospital waiting area brings together people from all levels of the socio-economic scale. On sight, the various patients that wander through the hospital ““ divorced parents with three children, a young couple and a homeless drug addict, just to name a few – seem like they couldn’t be more different. The reality is, they’re all victims of dire circumstances that have led them to this hospital where the dedicated staff is run off their feet, the beds are constantly full, and the uninsured have no other options. So they wait.

By turning his lens on the faces of the frustrated potential patients and the harried doctors and nurses who do their best with the resources they have, Nicks is able to make a simple,  graceful point that so many political pundits and politicians have been arguing over for years: the healthcare system in the US is broken and many, many citizens are paying the price, sometimes with their lives.

During the 24-hour period that’s depicted in the film, Nicks seamlessly jackrabbits from one subject’s story to the next so that we get a full picture of just what it takes to keep an emergency room like Highland’s running, as well as what someone looking for medical treatment is in store for when they walk through the door. As a result, he captures many candid moments that paint a picture of desperation and frustration with the current system.

Nothing illustrates this more than one striking moment  wherein a doctor is desperately trying to find a bed for a man who’s come in having suffered a stroke. Speaking on the phone to another doctor, he ironically expresses that he wishes the man weren’t able to walk on his own so there would be more options in finding him immediate treatment. It’s chilling, but not unexpected.

As the clock ticks away, we get to meet a recently unemployed (and thus, uninsured) Dad who’s brought his daughter in with a fever that’s elevated enough to be worrying, but not quite high enough to warrant an immediate bed, a man with a traveling bullet lodged in his back made to wait painfully for hours on end and a young man with an advanced cancerous tumor on his genitals who’s just been kicked out of another hospital for not having the correct insurance. For all of them, the treatment they need is so close, yet so very, very far away ““ and that’s even before they get the bill. It’s through these stories that The Waiting Room is able to reach to the very core of the human experience: life vs. death and the right of every human being to live a healthy existence.

Thankfully, the many three-hankie moments are broken up by light-hearted vignettes featuring a sassy admissions nurse (who should win some sort of medal for grace under pressure) and the various musings of the patients who are able to find a sense of humour about their time spent in hospital limbo.

Will they get the help they need? Will they be able to afford it? Just who deserves free health care anyway? It’s hard to tell, but one thing’s made abundantly clear: they’ll all be waiting for quite a while to find out.

The Waiting Room screens at the Hot Docs Toronto International Documentary Film Festival on Friday, May 4, 2012 at 7:15 pm, Saturday, May 5, 2012 at 6:30 pm, and Sunday, May 6, 2012 at 9:15 pm.

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