“Those were the days, my friend, we thought they’d never end … “
Even those who weren’t around to hear Mary Hopkin’s 1968 ear-worm pop hit can appreciate its rueful meaning.
Especially the nurses of In Case of Emergency.
The new documentary, from director Carolyn Jones (The American Nurse), focuses on seven emergency nurses in disparate hospitals — from Dallas, Texas, to Dubuque, Iowa, from Lexington, Ky., to Paterson, N.J.
Despite their geographical disparities, they share a variety of attributes, including their dedication, their adrenaline-junkie energy — and their utter, unbelieving shock at the rise of COVID-19.
In Case of Emergency opens far from the frenzy of a hospital emergency department. (Attention, ER fans: hospital emergency operations have long outgrown the “emergency room” designation.)
Instead, world-weary Paterson nurse Cathlyn Robinson perches on her front porch, clutching her coffee mug in the early-morning quiet, and ponders the workday to come.
Ah, for the good old days of gunshot wounds, opioid overdoses, bloody trauma cases and other constant emergency department crises.
The sensitive, articulate Robinson serves as a kind of chorus, her comments linking the documentary’s various perspectives.
Most of In Case of Emergency takes place in a pre-pandemic world.
As the documentary hits the road, different nurses — male, female, old-timers, up-and-comers — recall what brought them to the emergency department and what keeps them there.
Along the way, they also reflect on pressing medical — and societal — problems.
“We put Band-Aids on a lot of the big issues we can’t fix,” acknowledges Michelle Lyon of Lexington’s University of Kentucky hospital.
And, as big issues go, COVID-19 emerges as the one that plunges these ready-for-anything professionals into a different kind of trauma.
Director Jones — assisted by cinematographer Jaka Vinsek and editors Laura Israel and Chelsea Smith — deftly interweaves talking-heads interviews and action footage. Much of that action proves undeniably compelling.
But In Case of Emergency also makes time for smaller, more touching details — an empathic nurse sweetly serenading (and soothing) a terrified patient, another assuring a young father he’ll survive his gunshot wound to see his daughter again.
All the anguish and exhaustion may rock their worlds, but the nurses of In Case of Emergency resolutely do their duty.
Robinson wonders “what the long-term repercussions will be for us” — before concluding: “This is my job. This is what I’m meant to do.”