The First Wave (2021) ☆☆☆(3/4): Their first several months with COVID-19

Matthew Heineman’s new documentary film “The First Wave”, which was recently included in the shortlist for Best Documentary Oscar, looks at a number of New York City hospital workers and patients who struggled a lot during the first several months of the COVID-19 pandemic. While it simply presents their urgent and desperate struggles on the screen, the documentary has several powerful human moments to observe and appreciate, and you may come to reflect more on how much our human society has been affected by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic during last few years.

The documentary mainly revolves around Long Island Jewish Medical Center of New York City. At first, it shows us how busy everyone was in hospital when the city was being hit by the COVID-pandemic in March 2020, and we see how strenuously and diligently many nurses and doctors in hospital worked together for saving their COVID-19 patients. As they were frequently overwhelmed by the rising number of new COVID-19 patients, some of their patients died due to various medical complications associated with COVID-19, and that certainly daunted and depressed them a lot.

Nevertheless, the nurses and doctors of Long Island Jewish Medical Center kept going just like thousands of other medical workers in the city. In case of Dr. Nathalie Douge, she continues to try to keep her spirit high as before even though she cannot help but become emotional about those COVID-19 patients who urgently need the medical help and assistance from her and her colleagues right now. As pointed out at one point in the documentary, many of COVID-19 patients in the city are usually Hispanic or African Americans, and, as the child of an African Haitian couple, Dr. Douge often sees lots of her neighbors and family members from many of COVID-19 patients admitted into Long Island Jewish Medical Center.

We also meet several nurses in the hospital, and the documentary comes to focus more on a female nurse named Kellie Wunsch, who is the most spirited one in the bunch. Although she is certainly well aware of the possibility of getting infected at her workplace at any time, she is always ready to try her best for her many COVID-19 patients, and we see how she and her fellow nurses often swing back and forth between relieving victory and saddening defeat as fighting more with COVID-19 everyday. In case of one certain patient, he looks fairly well for a while, but then he somehow succumbs to death not long after that, and that is surely devastating to Wunsch and her colleagues.

Meanwhile, the documentary also shows us how things got worse and worse during next several months. As the lockdown was started in New York City, the city and its citizens struggled more and more with the COVID-19 pandemic, and the workers of Long Island Jewish Medical Center became much busier than before while the death by COVID-19 became more frequent than before. During one devastating scene, the documentary shows a comatose patient dying quietly after it turns out that there is really nothing they can do for him, and what follows next is quiet but equally harrowing to say the least.

At least, there are also some patients who get slowly recovered despite their constantly fragile medical status. In case of a police officer named Ahmed Ellis, he looks rather hopeless as his medical condition often fluctuates, and that surely makes his nurses as well as his wife quite concerned, but then, to everyone’s relief, he gradually gets better day by day. Around the time when he can breathe without the assistance from a respiratory machine, he can barely move or speak, but the worst time seems to be over for him, and then we see him going through his physical therapy sessions step by step.

The documentary also pays some attention to Brussels Joban, a hospital nurse who also struggled a lot with COVID-19 on her hospital bed after she got infected along with her family. Due to her serious medical condition, she had to give birth to her baby much earlier than expected, and then she naturally had to be separated from her baby for a while. Eventually, she embarks on her way to recovery, but nothing is certain even at that point, and her family members are certainly anxious about when she can finally leave the hospital and then return to their home.

The documentary loses its focus a bit when it shows Dr. Douge’s active participation in the public demonstration sparked by the death of George Floyd, but it eventually returns to its main narrative later, and then we get several uplifting moments to remember. Yes, the COVID-19 pandemic is still raging around the world at present, but it is difficult for any of us not to be touched by some small human victories shown in the documentary, and they resonate more with what is presented on the screen at the very end of the documentary.

Overall, “The First Wave” is another good documentary from Heineman, who previously gave us “Cartel Land” (2015) and “City of Ghosts” (2017). In short, this is another notable COVID-19 documentary of this year after “In the Same Breath” (2021) and “Convergence: Courage in a Crisis” (2021), and you will surely appreciate those hard-working medical workers more after watching it. Folks, let’s hope together that they will not toil any more after the next year at least.

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