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A few months after the COVID-19 vaccine was approved, when the ban on the use of masks was lifted, unemployment benefits and rental benefits were ended, and students went to school again, Americans may have lulled themselves into the belief that the pandemic was over. But escalating inflation and continuing supply chain shortages will counteract this and could also increase infections as the holiday season begins. In this changing landscape, with one leg still in “unprecedented times” and the other in “return to normal,” Matthew Heineman’s disturbing and painfully humanistic documentary “The First Wave” emerges.
From March to June 2020, Heinemann had exclusive access to the Long Island Jewish Medical Center (LIJ) in New York, which saw its first COVID-19 patient on March 3, 2020. Recently, the healthcare system has 1,400 employees throughout the system refusal to vaccinate.) Like other hospitals across the country in the past year, LIJ has been subject to ever-changing demands from city and operational medical protocols. Doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals have been overwhelmed and overworked trying to piece together enough clinical experience and research to help people infected with COVID-19. The hospital lacked resources – ventilators, masks, rooms. However, patients continued to arrive and COVID-19 continued to spread.
Spring 2020 may seem like a past life, but First Wave takes us back and puts us next to the front line workers who are doing everything they can to save everyone they can. Depending on the personal experience of viewers during the COVID-19 pandemic, watching First Wave can be traumatic or re-traumatizing. But Heinemann respects the humanity of his subjects by highlighting the dire circumstances they find themselves in, and the abrupt transitions between shots of people’s faces and shots of their wrapped bodies serve a purpose.
Outside LIJ, frantic calls are ringing between emergency operators and nurses, “Please answer as soon as possible,” as police sirens blare in the distance, and lines of ambulances and their drivers wait to drop patients. Inside the LIJ, the squeak of medical machines and staff pagers, the crackling overhead of hospital announcements for another blue emergency code, and the quick bumps of chest compression convey the insane nature of every day and night. The only silence is when the medical teams observe a minute of silence – just one – for each lost patient, and that silence builds up as the First Wave continues and the number of casualties increases.
Heineman divides his documentary by months, but otherwise lets the days at LIJ play seemingly without interruption. The result is an intimate and unsettling atmosphere at a relentless pace. A well-edited, terrifying episode takes viewers from room to room with a specific pattern: a nurse in personal protective equipment holds a phone or tablet in a transparent plastic bag so that the patient can communicate with the family; at first the patient seems stable, but then quickly develops into a new disease; and attempts at resuscitation by chest compression, electric shock, or epinephrine injection have failed.
The First Wave does this over and over, until the routine is so clearly established that viewers can repeat how to deal with death: the medical staff check the pulse, tell the time, and then prepare the body for proper handling in accordance with the public. health care rules. But even if people are able to adapt, and even if we are used to accepting pain and reacting accordingly, it is impossible to watch The First Wave without fear of constant loss of life. The first scene of the documentary, which takes viewers through a path of hope and despair, is only the first obstacle.
The clothes are beginning to show: about the hospital therapist Dr. Natalie Douge, whose initial frankness and fortitude collapse as she realizes how disproportionately COVID-19 affects New York’s black, Hispanic and immigrant communities. The scene in which a colleague leads her away from the camera after she makes a desperate, swearing call for more help for LIJ is one of the documentary’s most impressive moments. On Intensive Care Nurse Kelly Wunsch, who wearily admits she understands why young nurses are leaving the profession: “I don’t think you’ll find any nurse who says they feel like a hero,” before proceeding to action when her pager goes off. And about the families of COVID-19 patients Ahmed Ellis and Brussels Jabon, school safety inspector and LIJ nurse, respectively, who are intubated as they fight the virus.
“It’s getting harder and harder for everyone,” one LIJ nurse tells another, and First Wave relentlessly documents the contrasting emotions and tumultuous realities of one of the greatest tragedies in American history. Remember when people applauded, cheered, and celebrated workers at certain times every day? The First Wave – even with its hopeful ending – ultimately feels like a warning to us how quickly we, as a society, put these things aside to get back to business as usual. “How do you look when you come out on the other side?” some are wondering, and the most poignant, haunting reminder of the First Wave is that we have not yet achieved it.
Duration: 1 hour, 33 minutes
Plays: Kicks off November 19, Laemmle Monica, Santa Monica; and AMC Orange 30