Perhaps it’s fitting that a film about death and the dying should close the DOXA festival. One would hope, though, that Stopping for Death: The Nurses of Wells House Hospice didn’t close the schedule because programmers thought it too much of a downer with which to kick things off.
Because, perhaps surprisingly, it’s not the buzz kill that most might think a documentary about terminally ill patients and their caregivers might be.
It has its moments, to be sure, and viewers might (and in one or two scenes probably should) find a tear or two welling up unbidden. On the whole, though, director Wendy Roderweiss’s unguarded look at the nurses who care for people about to slip their physical bonds is hopeful, enlightening, empathetic, and even humorous.
Wells House Hospice is a Long Beach, California, facility with 16 beds, faltering government funding, and a nursing staff constantly under strain because of personnel shortages, physical and mental exhaustion, and an environment that has refined uncertainty to an art form.
Roderweiss and her cinematographer, Natasha Bayus, don’t flinch in the face of death and its attendant indignities. There are people dying on-camera, some with acceptance of their fate and others in denial or determined to fight, even with no strength left. It’s hard, if not impossible, to watch and remain unaffected.
Among the caregivers is Curtis, the upbeat health aide who quit managing a fast-food restaurant because the living were too unpredictable and mean-spirited. He absorbs insults with a smile, dresses up as “Mrs. Death” at Halloween, and is one of the few left standing after Roderweiss finished her project.
Plain-speaking newcomer nurse Cindy, who might make people think of Janeane Garofalo in scrubs, addresses funding woes and the resultant mental and physical hardships by turning to the camera, giving her state’s governor the finger, and calling him a “motherfucker”. She has even less kind words for staff at a local county hospital who washed their hands of a hopeless cancer case by performing a tracheotomy, painfully and needlessly prolonging a life that was about to end, and shipping him off to the hospice.
Judith, the charge nurse and a recovered alcoholic who says she gets more out of her job than she gives (“and I like to think I give a lot”) and who describes holding patients’ hands while they take their last breaths as “a very beautiful experience”, finally can’t take the day-to-day pressure anymore. (And as she relates, even a welcome recent raise only elevated her salary to a bit less than that of a bus driver’s.)
There are also nursing director Diana; David, the program director who has the unenviable task of trying to squeeze blood from the stones that are his nursing staff; and the hospice residents themselves, many of whom are indigent, drug addicts, and estranged from family at their time of greatest need.
The Wells House staff become their family. Watch them crowd into the room of Mary, one of their more cantankerous charges, as she moves from “transition” to taking her last laboured breaths. Look at the faces of these professionals as they witness, share, cry, sing, and kiss her goodbye. Others wash her body and fix her hair (“There, now she’s ready”). Note that it is not until the mortuary attendant arrives, closing her eyes and drawing a sheet over her face, that you think of her as a body and not Mary. And become aware of the swelling in your own throat.
Everyone knows, intellectually, that death is inevitable, that it follows life as surely as night follows day. Few people, however, in our society deal with the subject with as much good grace, compassion, and even humour as these angels.
That few of them--despite their stalwart souls and fierce love of what they do--survive the rigours of their chosen calling is the real tragedy.
Stopping for Death plays at the Vancity Theatre on Sunday (May 12) at 5:30 p.m.