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 continues. 

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.    


Producer/Director Matthew Heineman says he created the film to put a “human face” on the emerging pandemic.  The result is a prescient, moving work.   He and his team were given exclusive access to film inside LIJ with the cooperation of the hospital staff and the patients, all of whom granted permission.  Their ‘fly-on-the-wall technique takes us inside the hospital rooms and the patients’ homes where families anxiously wait for news and hope for the best.  While it may be difficult for some to watch as the country continues to grapple with the virus, the film succeeds as an intimate portrait of both the physical and emotional struggles of patients, families and healthcare workers.  “Every day we look death right in the eye. It’s a storm that nobody’s ever been in before,” says one member of the healthcare team.

The film captures the fear and uncertainty of the staff as they try to figure out what to do when confronted with a new deadly pathogen. Dr. Dougé  notes, “This is the problem; it’s new.  That is the worst thing in medicine. We are taught pattern recognition and as of right now there is no clear pattern”

The First Wave is one of the first of what will likely be several documentaries about the pandemic.  Its focus on the suffering of the patients and the emotional stress on those who care for them will be of interest to anyone on the frontlines of healthcare and to everyone living in this life-changing time of the pandemic. One healthcare worker sums it up this way, “We weren’t made for this, but this made us.”    




National Geographic Documentary Films

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