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Q&A: Code Black Director Ryan McGarry

Code Black follows surgical residents at Los Angeles County Hospital's ER.

Code Black follows doctors-in-training at Los Angeles County Hospital’s ER.

For the next ten days, you can get an inside look at America’s busiest Emergency Department by checking out Code Black, a new documentary playing at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. The film follows a team of doctors-in-training working in Los Angeles County Hospital’s legendary trauma bay or “C-Booth,” the birthplace of Emergency Medicine. The film was directed by Ryan McGarry, who at the time of filming was also completing his residency in C-Booth, where more people have died and more people have been saved than in any other square footage in the United States. We caught up with McGarry this week and he shared some background about the story coming to the big screen this Friday, August 1.

We heard that you worked on this documentary project during med school. Why did you decide to do both at once?

I came upon this story by accident. I’d always wanted to combine medicine and film because I figured I’d be inspired by the medical setting, but I thought I would combine these things after my training. However, I got to my training and I found ingredients that were perfect for a movie – an arena of drama, comedy, sadness, hope and failure; crazy cases; and no shortage of characters. Plus healthcare was a timely issue, so I figured I’d better roll with it.

How did you manage your schedule as a resident while filming?

There wasn’t much of a compromise. USC didn’t reduce my training hours and I didn’t ask them to – that would have been detrimental to my classmates and me. I kept at filming and work full throttle. My work on the film mostly came during my rare times off and my few vacation days. For three years I didn’t take vacations or rest very often.

Did you and your fellow residents do the actual filming of this documentary?

The first half hour of the film was filmed by me, yeah. That was advantageous because for my colleagues at the hospital it was less intimidating – there wasn’t a crew. It was just me and they knew me. Then we went toward a more traditional crew for the second half, but by then people were less intimidated by the process.

Why this ER in this hospital?

This ER and this story found me, honestly. That’s what’s wild about it. Ultimately this story had to be told in a public hospital. It needed to be in a place that had the benefit and burden of not being involved in the mess of insurance. But there’s also the reality that we don’t think much about those financial problems while we’re working – we just see everybody.

This place also helped us debunk the myth of a “county demographic.” This isn’t just people without insurance. Because of ObamaCare, there are more people with insurance cards now, but even then those insurance cards aren’t all created equal. Sometimes the people who come to county hospitals have been referred there because they can’t see a specialist, or their insurance doesn’t cover something. But sometimes we’re just the closest place in an emergency.

What do you want people to leave Code Black thinking about?

I hope there’s a hopefulness that people get from this. Yes, it’s a sobering film, but this generation of physicians has left other industries to come into medicine – not to get rich but to help people, and because they really respect and value the patient-doctor-provider experience. That’s novel. People charge millennials with being entitled, but this shows the flip side.

I also hope that there’s a discussion happening about the fact that what most people want is not emphasized in our healthcare system. Think about privacy and charting, for example. Everyone wants privacy, but if you know about HIPPA, you know that it takes multiple resets to access someone’s records in a hospital – you’re being asked the same thing by each doctor, nurse and aide. That seems extreme, and you’ll see it in the film. In a hospital setting, who else is going to look at your x-ray? Someone from the public isn’t going to come running in. I’m not saying that patients don’t want privacy or shouldn’t have it, but I’m curious if people get just how much red tape goes into the current system even though its well intentioned.

And ask yourself this: when you go to the doctor, how many times do you explain your allergies? I bet it’s more than once. This redundancy is for safety, but all three people who talk to you are recording the same thing so that if they got sued, it would be in the records. But that’s time that could be spent making personal connections. So I hope people walk away really thinking about this system, from a patient’s perspective and a doctor’s perspective.

Watch the official trailer:

To buy your tickets for Code Black, playing in Boston from August 1-9, 2014, visit the MFA website. MedTech Boston’s Editor-in-Chief Dr. Jennifer Joe will moderate a post-screening panel discussion following the August 1st, 7:30 pm showing.


Jenni Whalen

Jenni Whalen

    Jenni Whalen is the Executive Assistant of Editorial at Upworthy. She was previously MedTech Boston's Managing Editor and has an MS in Journalism from Boston University, as well as a BA in Psychology from Bucknell University. Whalen has written for Greatist, Boston magazine, AZ Central Healthy Living and the New England Journal of Medicine, among other places. She has also worked as a conference planner, ghost writer, researcher and content developer.

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