During the first 10 minutes of The First Wave, amid the emergency room commotion, the urgent ministrations of rapid response teams and the general state of alarm, a refrain arises: “Do we have a pulse?” It’s March 2020, and death is all around. Now, more than a year and a half into the novel coronavirus pandemic, Matthew Heineman’s intensely intimate documentary arrives as a graphic and emotional reminder of the early days of the crisis, in all its confusion and horror. It’s also a breathtaking testament to the fight to live, the calling to heal, and the power of human connection.
Like last year’s 76 Days, which captured the early weeks of the outbreak in Wuhan, China, The First Wave is a remarkable piece of reportage from the belly of the beast. In this case that means Long Island Jewish Medical Center (LIJ), a Queens hospital that was especially hard hit by an influx of COVID-19 patients at a time when New York City was the U.S. epicenter of the virus. In its focus on an internist and two struggling but determined patients and their families, Heineman’s masterfully crafted film, set for theatrical release by Neon in mid-November, is a work of high-impact drama.
The First Wave
A thoroughly gripping, high-impact report.
All the central figures, patients included, are frontline essential workers, and the pandemic’s disproportionate toll on people of color is a central concern of the doc. (The issue is also acknowledged in clear terms by then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo, whose daily briefings are excerpted here and serve as reminders of the now-disgraced politician’s heroic stature during the months of chaos. A lot can change in a year and a half.)
Nathalie Dougé, a doctor of internal medicine who was born in the Bronx to Haitian parents, feels a particular connection to the many immigrants and people of color she treats. In May 2020, after the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, and after she has heard countless patients complain of difficulty breathing, the words “I can’t breathe” take on new meaning for her. Bearing a small handwritten sign — “Racism is a public health issue” — the doctor joins the outpouring of rage and grief at a protest in Manhattan. In this late-in-the-film sequence, her loving confrontation with a distraught young man is an absolute gut-punch of emotion.
There’s no shortage of intense feeling in The First Wave, which is divided into chapters by month. In March, when LIJ is inundated with its first COVID patients, Dougé describes the virus as “the worst thing in medicine” — that is, something new, for which there is no protocol. She’s given to sighs of frustration and anguish over the illness’ unpredictability. Her feelings of being overwhelmed are evident, and so too is her compassion when talking with patients or on the phone with their families, whether she’s delivering a hopeful update or the worst news imaginable.
The film traces the setbacks and progress of two patients, both young and raising families. We rarely hear their voices — during their time in the hospital they’re either on a ventilator and unconscious, or too enervated to speak. And yet a strong sense of who they are comes through, thanks to glimpses of them in better times and the extraordinary in-the-moment camerawork of helmer-DP Heineman and his intrepid team of cinematographers (Ross McDonnell, Thorsten Thielow, Brian Dawson and Alex Pritz). With near invisibility, they move among scenes of sometimes startling intimacy.
Who these two afflicted people are comes through, potently, in the way health care workers respond to them, and in the scenes of their anxious spouses, adorable children and other concerned relatives. NYPD school safety officer Ahmed Ellis, a first-generation American whose parents are from Guyana, is a high-risk patient because he’s overweight and diabetic, and is 35 when he becomes sick. Brussels Jabon, a nurse, delivered her second child by emergency C-section and then lapsed into full-blown COVID, having held her newborn only once.
In moments of consciousness during their long, difficult bouts of illness, both patients express a powerful will to get through the ordeal and return to their families. Brussels’ husband, Japh, also a nurse — like every adult in their Philippine American extended-family household — can’t visit his wife or his new son in the hospital, and worries about his asthmatic daughter contracting the virus. Ahmed’s wife, Alexis, a health care professional, has her hands full with two toddlers, and hides her worries from them.
In their breakroom conversations, nurses tally the day’s intubations and share how terrified they are that they’ll become infected and bring the virus home to their own families. Their fear, exhaustion and sorrow find quiet, stunned expression in tearful support-group meetings. On top of the medical crisis itself, many of the nurses and medical aides feel the unaccustomed responsibility of serving as surrogate family members: Patients’ loved ones are present only on the FaceTime-streaming tablet screens the hospital workers hold in their gloved hands. (In a less dire but still emotionally charged look at our pandemic-mandated virtual reality, Dr. Dougé marks her birthday via a surprise celebration on Zoom.)
At the other end of the spectrum, the camera captures the exultant mood among the nurses each time a patient is well enough to be taken off a ventilation machine; they mark such occasions by playing “Here Comes the Sun.” Heineman zeros in on a couple of fiercely devoted hospital employees: ICU nurse Kellie Wunsch, who’s especially moved by family man Ahmed’s ongoing struggle, and physical therapist Karl Arabian, whose relentless optimism and pealing laughter are surely as essential to his job as medical knowledge and physical strength.
The First Wave makes disturbingly clear how debilitating the virus can be. There are a few moments of death onscreen, presented less obliquely than we might expect — and presumably with the permission of the patients’ next of kin. These moments feel too personal, too raw, too spiritual to be recorded. But the point, perhaps, is that they represent many more such deaths. And Heineman shows us the way hospital procedures become rituals in their own right: the medical staff’s minute of silence around the deceased, the identifying toe tag, the bagging and removal of the body to the hospital’s rapidly filling morgue.
Punctuating the main drama are a few well-placed shots of New York’s empty streets or socially distanced grocery customers lining up to shop: the way we were, less than two years ago. Whether in these brief interludes or the main drama in the hospital and on the homefront, there isn’t a wasted or uninvolving image in the footage that Heineman and his fellow cinematographers have gathered. And all of it is assembled with an assured momentum by editors Francisco Bello, Matthew Heineman, Gabriel Rhodes and David Zieff, the inner music of the visuals matched by H. Scott Salinas and Jon Batiste’s subtly stirring score.
The film’s four-month saga closes at a point when New Yorkers are planning for “the reopening.” By now we’ve probably lost count of the reopenings and shutdowns and surges, the policy mandates and reversals that we’ve weathered since the spring of 2020. But The First Wave offers an unforgettable look at how, in the earliest weeks of a monstrously unfamiliar storm, some of the bravest among us persevered.