In Case of Emergency

The first rule of ER nursing is: don’t call it an ER. They outgrew mere rooms long ago. They run emergency departments now, and they’re never not busy. They are the front line, meeting the needs of a community when they have nowhere else to turn. America lacks a socialized and humane approach to medicine; if an individual is lacking in insurance, or just can’t afford the co-pay, the emergency department is there as a catch-all, treating dental pain and heart attacks and overdoses and broken bones and colicky babies and psychiatric episodes. The emergency department isn’t necessarily the best place for any of those people, but sometimes they’re the only place.

Director Carolyn Jones also made American Nurse, a documentary I was compelled to check out during lockdown last spring when we were all feeling an even deeper appreciation of nurses and the hard work that they do. Nurses come in all kinds of shapes and sizes: some spend their days drawing blood, others sit and hold hands, some deliver meds and baths and kind words, and some guard the comatose bodies of post-surgical patients, coaxing them back to the land of the living. ED nurses are a different kind of beast. They live for trauma. They don’t wish it on you, but if and when you do go through it, they relish the opportunity to save your life and they will do everything in their power to do it.

Jones hears from nurses in seven different settings, but she gets some bonus content she never could have predicted. COVID-19 starts to overrun emergency departments around the world. Nurses are stretched to their maximum treating a virus that’s as bad as any they’ve ever seen. The toll is still being measured; the pandemic is still being fought.

For more documentaries about our response to COVID-19, join us here.

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