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Movies, dining and things to do / Spokane and North Idaho

‘American Nurse’ is a health-care love letter

If you work in healthcare, or even if you aren't you might be interested in a film opening today at the Magic Lantern titled “The American Nurse” Following is the review I wrote of the film for Spokane Public Radio:

All of us have, at one time or another, encountered nurses. Here’s a curious admission: Whether my experiences involve hospital stays, clinical visits or mere office chats, I can’t help but compare the nurses I meet with those portrayed through popular media. “MASH’s” “Hotlips” Houlihan, for example. “Scrubs” sweetheart Carla Espinoza. Even Mildred Ratched, the harridan who terrorizes her patients in Ken Kesey’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”

Real-life nurses never seem anywhere near that interesting.

Documentary filmmaker Carolyn Jones had never given much  thought either to nurses or their profession until the day she was diagnosed with breast cancer. And then, during treatment, the aid provided by what she calls an “exceptional nurse” was key to her getting through the most difficult circumstances she had, until then, ever faced.

All of which forced her to ponder: Who are these people and what challenges confront them in their own lives? Jones, a socially conscious photographer and documentary filmmaker, embarked on a mission to find out. She and her crew traveled the country, interviewing dozens of nurses, and the result was a book, titled “The American Nurse,” that pairs striking photographs with the stories of some 75 nurses.

Jones then took five of her subjects and expanded the project into a feature documentary bearing the same title. The result, which opens this weekend at the Magic Lantern, is an illuminating look into the realm of an occupation most of us who don’t work in the health sector have little firsthand knowledge of. Through Jones’ film, we quickly learn that these people, dedicated both to their profession and their patients, are – at heart – driven by forces larger than their individual selves.

Naomi Cross, an obstetrics nurse at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins Hospital, once miscarried in bed and – full of shame and regret – wrapped up the fetus and threw it away. Sister Stephen Bloesl, a palliative-care nurse in a Wisconsin nursing home, watched her father waste away from Alzheimer’s. Tonia Faust, the daughter of a Louisiana prison guard, now works as a hospice-care nurse at that same institution. Brian McMillion, who counsels military veterans, began his career attempting to patch up grievously wounded soldiers in Iraq. And Jason Short, a Kentucky-based home-care specialist who drives so far into remote Appalachia to see patients he might well be traveling back in time a half-century or more, got a first glimpse of his future when a motorcycle accident left him – for the first time in his life – helpless.

Throughout “The American Nurse,” director Jones immerses us in the day-to-day lives of her subjects, emphasizing their humanity. She contrasts Cross’ family life, for example, with McMillion’s inability to balance intimate relationships and his dual passion: the military AND nursing. She captures both Sister Stephen’s empathy for her elderly patients and Faust’s willingness to care for men who have committed horrible crimes.

Some of what Jones depicts is so graphic you may have to avert your eyes. But you’ll likely be glad that the real-life nurses whose stories she tells are strong enough — dedicated enough — NOT to do the same.

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