First Wave documents the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic
at Long Island Jewish Medical Center (LIJ) in New York from March through June
of 2020. It opens with a graphic scene
of a rapid response team trying to save a patient with COVID whose heart has
stopped. Despite their efforts, the
patient dies. After the team pauses for
a minute of silence at the bedside, the grueling work of saving lives
The film follows Dr. Nathalie Dougé, an internist who was born
in the Bronx to Haitian parents. Most of her patients are Black, Hispanic or
immigrant. Two patients with COVID are
essential workers: Brussels Jabon, a Filipino nurse who undergoes an emergency
C-section after she is brought to the emergency room, and Ahmed Ellis, a school
safety officer with the NYPD. Both have
young children and supportive families.
Nurses hold up IPads so families can Facetime with the
patients. It’s terrifying and sad for
the families to see the patients on screen and not to be present when they are
needed the most. It’s emotionally difficult for the healthcare team as well who
are the only ones to hold a patient’s hand during these encounters. One nurse describes the effect of holding the
phone while family members have five minutes to Facetime with patients, “You
become the family member, and it seems like you’re losing your family.”
The emotional toll of losing so many patients, while fearing
that they too may contract the virus and bring it home to their own families,
weighs heavily on the healthcare teams.
They are trained to compartmentalize, to separate work from personal
life but their empathetic response to their patients follows them home. “I think about him every night when I go
home,” nurse Kelli Wunsch says of Ahmed. “I just want him to do well.”
Scene after scene of teams rushing to resuscitate a patient
who has coded are interspersed with more hopeful moments of a reunion between
husband and wife, the sound of the song “Here Comes the Sun” when a patient is
taken off the ventilator, and the cheerful encouragement of a physical therapist
working to help a patient regain enough strength and mobility to be discharged.
At times the camera moves outside the confines of the hospital
to the outside world: Dr. Dougé alone at
home with her dog celebrating her birthday with friends over zoom, eerily empty
streets during the lockdown, and families anxiously awaiting news from the
hospital. We see bodies taken to
refrigerated trucks and people cheering the health workers at 7pm from windows
across the city.
In May, when protests erupt following George Floyd’s murder,
Dr. Dougé, joins the protest with other frontline workers carrying a sign, “Racism
is a Public Health Issue” and ”I Can’t Breathe” scrawled on her surgical mask. Amid the “I Can’t Breathe” cries of the
protestors, she relives the myriad times she has heard her patients gasping
those words to her just before they are placed on ventilators.
Both Brussel and Ahmed become stable enough to be taken off
the ventilator and released from the hospital to return home to their families. Despite their recovery from the acute phase
of the illness, it is clear their health remains severely compromised. As the cheers of the staff in the hospital
lobby fade, tough work lies ahead for these patients and their families.
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