In the world of emergency medicine – chest tubes, resuscitation, and intubation – time is a critical resource. But Ryan McGarry, ER physician and stage IV lymphoma survivor, understands at the bone that idle minutes mean something very different to a patient. He recalls “waiting on news if the therapy is working . . . is there more disease that we didn’t know about, is it getting bigger . . . the clock was torture, watching that dial go around is torture.”
McGarry, 32, horridly remembers what it’s like to wait on a simple, overdue dose of anti-nausea medication. He reflects, “You’re clearly at an advantage as a physician or provider at any level if you’ve been a patient. It’s just an unbeatable perspective.”
But the call to see, intimately, the business of medicine from more than one vantage point didn’t end with his experience as “doctor” and “patient”. McGarry took a critical look at our entire system of health care – behind the eye of a camera.
In 2008, while a visiting medical student at USC, in rotation at Los Angeles County General Hospital, McGarry spent his rare, sleep-deprived free moments filming the inside of this birthplace of emergency medicine, “where more people have died or been saved than in any other square footage in the United States.” Miraculously, what began as an archival side-project and creative outlet to break the monotony of memorization would, in five years, take shape as the award-winning documentary film CODE BLACK, a Long Shot Factory release in 2014.
Now screening in theaters nationwide, CODE BLACK tells the stories of four young emergency medicine physicians as they wake up to both the rewards of being in a position to save lives and the maddening hospital regulations and financial interests that complicate this ideal. In this film, viewers get a local peak into our national health care crisis as upwards of 300 of the 3 million uninsured or working poor L.A.County residents are, at any given moment, waiting 18 hours for care as doctors and nurses rush to juggle their needs with increasing bureaucratic demands – for example, 30 minutes of documentation for each uncomplicated, 2-minute visit.
McGarry explains,”I don’t know anyone who enters medicine at any level these days – nurse, doctor, tech, nurse practitioner – who says, ‘I want to get rich!’ If we’re here with patients, it’s probably because at some point we said, you know what, I could go into sales or marketing, I could be a banker, but I really want to help people . . . Then you get there and see that so little of what we do is to that end . . . We’ve become lemmings in a factory system of care . . . So now what? You have your ideals . . . Are you just going to become some cynic?”
CODE BLACK’s short companion piece, RECONNECTION (teaser available here), artfully depicts this very nightmare in the provision of healthcare. But in this dramatic interpretation, both doctors and patients are beyond frustrated, in pain, or inconvenienced – they’re slouching along, devoid of emotion, and utterly inhuman.
Here, even a young, energetic and optimistic McGarry admits, “I’m not sure I have good answers. It’s a real conundrum, putting a capitalist competitive motivation with a duty to heal and cure . . . there’s always going to be a problem there . . . I think ingenuity and good care should be rewarded, but there will always be human beings who can’t resist taking extreme advantage. There will always be people who can’t not have that 10 million dollar bonus . . . You’d think healthcare would be the one thing that’s immune that, but clearly it’s not.”
Today McGarry’s unusual career choice, perhaps, re-imagines what we mean by ‘the art and science of healing.’ He enjoys splitting his time 50/50 between filmmaking and emergency medicine.