As the coronavirus continues to spread, shining a spotlight on frontline workers, the lifesaving work of doctors and the pressures on hospitals have been thrown into relief.
In this sense the new Netflix eight-part documentary series Lenox Hill, which follows four physicians—two neurosurgeons, an ER doctor, and an obstetrician, through a year of work at the eponymous Upper East Side hospital—could not have come at a better time.
The series, which tracks the physicians as they treat patients, also makes it clear that while shows like ER and House had to put doctors in melodramatic situations to give viewers an intriguing plot, the daily goings-on at a hospital like Lenox Hill are just as harrowing and engrossing.
In this documentary, the stakes are real.
The filmmaker, Ruthie Shatz, says she was inspired to make the documentary after her own hospital stay. “I was in the hospital, on bedrest, while I was pregnant,” she says. “My mother, who had cancer, was being treated a few floors up from me. We didn’t let her know I was also there, because I was worried about her well-being, so I would talk to her on the phone even though I was in the same building.” She adds, “That’s when I started thinking about the environment and what an insane place it is. There are these extremities—life and death—under the same roof.”
The series also shows the toll that the work (literal life-and-death situations) can take on doctors’ personal lives. Two neurosurgeons, department chair Dr. David Langer and vice chair Dr. John Boockvar—accomplished (and somewhat arrogant) men—put in long hours at the hospital and we see one of them take a call from his family asking for him to come home. The documentary shows them managing their duties as surgeons and leading their teams.
By chance, ER doctor Mirtha Macri and obstetrician Amanda Little-Richardson were pregnant while filming. Their pregnancies form a sort of subplot to the larger drama of the hospital. “We cast the show the year before we started shooting, so it was a surprise,” Shatz says. While Langer and Boockvar can call their families, appease them, and return to their jobs, for the women, separating the personal from the professional can be more difficult. In one scene, Little-Richardson, who is black, talks about the higher mortality rates of pregnant black women.
Lenox Hill also shows how even a well-staffed and well-funded hospital is constantly under pressure, highlighting how the healthcare system in the United States is broken. In one scene, Dr. Macri talks about how her patients in the ER often have less money, and many of them deal with chronic illnesses that they cannot get treated because they do not have medical insurance.
“I wanted to talk about the diverse people in the hospital—from the patients to the doctors—and the health insurance problem in this country and how that affects the relationship between doctors and patients,” Shatz says, adding, “Healthcare is like water and air. It’s a necessity, and everyone should have it. You shouldn’t be pushed away or denied care because you have less. It’s crazy that people will just stay home when they are sick because they can’t afford care.”