June 03, 2013

REMOTE AREA MEDICAL Exemplifies Humanity In Healthcare #IFFB

"These people might as well be on the moon."
We've all had our fair share of health scares over the years.  My wife suffered from a growth hormone deficiency as a child and underwent some experimental treatments, while my sister seems to be in and out of the hospital for minor ailments all the time.  And whereas my younger brother was able to fight off cancer a few years back, a good friend passed away in 2009 from non-Hodgkin's lymphoma before he was able to finish college.  Throw in a few heart attacks and a burgeoning case of Alzheimer's on my mother's side, and you can see why I consider myself lucky to have always been in fairly good health.  In fact, the worst thing I've ever had to suffer through was a broken elbow when I was six, but that was due to my own poor coordination as a child.  (I fell down on my arm while playing tag.)  I'm lucky that I now have a job that provides me with excellent health insurance but that's a pretty new development in my adult life.  Once I graduated from college and was kicked off my parents' policy, I became one of about 44 million Americans without health insurance.  I spent the next five years in Los Angeles playing health care roulette, hoping I wouldn't fall ill or get into a major car accident that would easily bankrupt me.  It's absolutely ludicrous that this country does not have universal health care, and the system that we've all submitted to is nothing less than insane; while it's certainly saved people's lives, it's destroyed plenty of others in the process.

Remote Area Medical is a documentary that aims to shed light on the lives of some of those folks who've been marginalized by inadequate access to proper health care.  Directors Jeff Reichert and Farihah Zaman are wildly successful in their effort, presenting a tale that is light on politics and heavy on the heart.  (In the interest of transparency, Zaman is an old friend, although we'd been out of touch for sometime until I saw this film.)  The movie shares a name with an organization that administers free pop-up health clinics throughout rural America.  It actually began by providing services to remote areas of the Amazon, until founder Stan Brock changed gears when he realized the dire need of people throughout Appalachia and the other more secluded areas of the United States.  The lack of adequate care in these areas is simply staggering.  In some cases it's a matter of being too physically removed from proper doctors and hospitals, but for most patients it's largely a matter of cost - whether it's a lifetime smoker with spots on her lungs or someone suffering with a mouth full of weak and broken teeth.  When you're struggling to make ends meet and have no kind of insurance coverage, even something as simple as a pair of glasses can feel like a miracle.  RAM helps to make those everyday miracles a reality for those in need.

The film covers a three day clinic held in April of 2012 at the Bristol Motor Speedway in Tennessee.  The process is daunting for potential patients: services are provided on a first come/first serve basis, which means that people set up camp in the stadium parking lot days in advance to ensure a slot.  And some services, notably dentistry, are in such demand that needs are often triaged for the same of time management.  For most attendees it'll be their only chance to receive medical attention all year (RAM tries to revisit areas on an annual basis) and in some cases it's the first time they'll ever undergo a process like an X-ray or an eye exam.  The doctors, nurses and technicians, all of whom are volunteering their time and services, treat almost 2,000 patients over a single weekend, with many more being turned away each day.  Reichert and Zaman, both of whom have previously volunteered at a RAM clinic, manage to present a number of fascinating different perspectives throughout the clinic, talking to doctors and patients alike.  For medical show junkies, they manage to get the cameras in close for a few procedures, including one woman, unable to kiss her husband for over a year, who gets a number of abscessed teeth pulled.  There are also some really strong moments from some of the people working behind the scenes, including one guy helping to craft false teeth who as actually a jeweler by trade, but started learning to make dentures when he realized that they were using a lot of the same equipment he was used to.  However, the filmmakers smartly keep the focus on the patients themselves, all of whom have engrossing and often heartbreaking stories to tell.  What's truly stunning is that, despite these crushing stories and circumstances, so many of these people remain so incredibly upbeat and optimistic.  The stadium parking lot is at times almost reminiscent of a block party, with kids running around playing while the adults grill food and, against all odds, continue to make the best of a truly terrible situation.  It's somehow both depressing and inspiring in equal measure.

The recent healthcare debates in this country have been absolutely maddening to watch, with too many politicians working for the interests of insurance corporations instead for their actual constituents.  The GOP-controlled House recently held their 38th meaningless vote to repeal "Obamacare" while right-leaning governors continue to refuse federal healthcare funding and try to dismantle the Affordable Care Act piece by piece on the state level.  Not only that, but the sheer quantity of misinformation and outright lies (death panels, anyone?) has made it almost impossible for anyone to have a real conversation about this stuff.  But while politicians and corporate lobbyists spin themselves in circles, there are millions of Americans who remain stranded by a broken system.  There's just no excuse for so many to continue suffering from diseases and conditions that are not only treatable but, in many cases, also preventable.  Remote Area Medical attacks this modern travesty head on, giving the healthcare crisis not just one human face, but dozens of faces that simply cannot be ignored or forgotten.

It's an incredibly powerful film that proves there's nothing so magnificent or so powerful as the simple act of people helping people.

Title: Remote Area Medical
Director: Jeff Reichert, Farihah Zaman
Starring: Val Crosby, Rhonda Begley, Johnny Peters, Stan Brock
Year Of Release: 2013
Viewing Method: Independent Film Festival Boston

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