By sheer coincidence, Netflix’s Lenox Hill has arrived at just the right time. Directors Ruthie Shatz and Adi Barash began work on their docu-series, set in an acute care hospital in Manhattan’s Upper East Side, in 2017—long before the novel coronavirus thrust health-care workers into the spotlight. The eight-hour series follows four physicians doing their best to care for their community—delivering babies, removing brain tumors, and, sometimes, providing care to patients who need a hot meal and a safe place to sleep even more than immediate medical attention.
“It felt like an opportunity to really share with the world what we do on the inside,” John Boockvar, vice chair of the hospital’s Department of Neurosurgery, told The Daily Beast of the series. “Obviously there’s a heightened awareness of it nowadays, but I look at this as an opportunity to share our experiences, to be role models, to really tell the truth and be transparent, and to be a sounding board against some of the fictionalized TV that we’ve seen in years past.”
As COVID-19 spread across the globe, health-care workers put themselves on the line day after day. In cities across the world, nightly applause erupts from windows and balconies, as civilians recognize the risks doctors take each day. As the pandemic spread, Boockvar said, “Every department was foisted into the front line.” He began running clinical trials for medications, while his colleague and fellow Lenox Hill subject, neurosurgery chair David Langer, volunteered at the temporary field hospital erected in the Jacob Javits Center while also seeing patients at the hospital.
“It came on like a hurricane,” Boockvar said. “The way I describe it, the virus was on one side of the door, trying to blow in, and you had every health-care worker on the inside door pushing back.”
But the hospital is better for having fought this battle, Boockvar insists. Lenox Hill has been renovated, has more ICU beds, and now has a telemedicine infrastructure in place that did not exist eight weeks ago. “It’s cleaner, it’s more efficient, and frankly it’s better than it was before,” he said.
Capturing the world of health care as doctors actually see it every day can be difficult. And as Langer notes, the industry has, at times, “done a lousy job of showing what we do.” And while Lenox Hill could never have brought all corners of the hospital to screen, it does provide a focused, well organized sliver.
Some patients’ journeys stretch out across all eight episodes, while some urgent care patients show up, get the care they need, and are never seen again. And most importantly, Shatz and Barash chose their subjects wisely; each doctor has their own personality and motivation for being in the field. It’s fascinating, and at times thrilling, to see them each in their elements.
In addition to Boockvar and Langer, Lenox Hill also shadows OB-GYN Amanda Little-Richardson and ER doctor Mirtha Macri, both of whom are managing their own pregnancies alongside their exhausting workloads. Macri’s patience and versatile skill set shine, making for one of the series’ most interesting stages. And Little-Richardson’s dedication to her work is both impressive and, at times, amusing; at one point she leaves her husband talking on speakerphone to an empty room as she attends to a patient’s alarm. As she manages her pregnancy, Little-Richardson is also planning a cross-country move to California.
From her first meeting with Shatz and Barash, Little-Richardson made clear that she wanted her story to highlight the lives of black people and women in medicine—populations she believes are under-represented both broadly and, specifically, in positions of power. “I also kind of wanted to highlight black families,” she told The Daily Beast, “because I am biased in saying this; I feel like I come from a great one. I really wanted to kind of show people different images of black real life.”
“Ruthie and Adi are probably two of the best people I’ve ever met,” Little-Richardson added of the series directors. “They’re very compassionate and kind people. And so I had complete trust in their filmmaking. I didn’t have fear that they were going to edit things to be salacious.”
Langer, meanwhile, is working to build out his neurosurgery department and make sure it’s properly supported. (Speaking to this duty, Langer quoted an old boss, who said, “When you’re a chairman, it’s like somebody comes in and takes a shit in your desk every day. Or vomits.”) And the entire neurosurgery team must make adjustments of their own as one of their colleagues battles cancer.
Beyond the coincidental timing of its release, Lenox Hill feels specifically tailored to this moment because of how it highlights the hospital’s relationship with its community. Little-Richardson discusses her outlook on health care as both a doctor and as a black woman who knows that black patients face statistically worse outcomes than their white counterparts. (As she found out during her pregnancy, her own daughter had genetic lesions—but now 15 months old, Little-Richardson confirms she is in good health and “growing like weeds.”) Macri, meanwhile, frequently treats patients dealing with housing and substance use issues; for those patients, she notes, the hospital can be something of a safe harbor. The series, at times, follows the doctors it shadows to their homes, capturing their family dynamics and highlighting the ways they keep their lives in order. And in each episode, Shatz and Barash treat each patient’s story with care—whether it’s a woman giving birth or a man having an unidentified growth treated on his posterior.
The series also does not treat the hospital as a silo within its community, but as an integral part of it. Now and again, exterior shots will display festivities within the city, including Halloween celebrations and the Pride march, as patients file in with various conditions tied to the day.
Some of those mass gatherings seen in Lenox Hill can be a bit jarring to watch after months of quarantine—but as New York begins to reopen this week, both Langer and Boockvar are optimistic. Both stressed that they’re not experts in epidemiology or virology specifically, but said that based on what they’ve seen, they’re not concerned about the city’s plans—or the protests that have broken out in recent weeks.
New York began Phase One of its reopening plan on Monday. Boockvar said that he feels comfortable with the plan, with one key provision: “Everyone’s got to wear a mask.”
“What I tell my four kids is, if you’re in public, you wear a mask, you keep six feet, you wash your hands, you don’t touch your face,” Boockvar said. “Those are the fundamentals for the public to adhere to, and this virus will go away. This virus will go away in July and August likely from heat alone. But those simple maneuvers will help prevent the spread.”
Langer feels similarly comfortable with the idea of reopening, providing everyone follows the mask and distancing guidelines. He also pointed out that a number of people have died in quarantine due to strokes and heart attacks, for example, because they were too scared to come to hospitals for treatment.
“Are people still gonna get sick? Sure,” Langer said. “Will there still be COVID? Yeah, but we know how to manage it. We know how to mitigate the risks. And we have to do that in order to get back to work and take care of people who really need us.” The number of new cases, he said, has dropped below 500 per day in New York—so hospitals are not overwhelmed like they were before, when the city was caught unprepared. According to state data, daily confirmed diagnoses have remained below 500 since June 2; the most recent date listed, June 7, cites only 59 new cases.
“As long as we keep the infection rates down, we can manage the COVID patients when they come in,” Langer said. “We just don’t want a massive spike all at once, which [would result from] an unprotected population… That’s really why I absolutely think we’re ready to go.”
And although there were initially, and continue to be, some concerns that protests could spark a second wave of COVID-19 cases, both Langer and Boockvar were also equally supportive of the demonstrations that have erupted this week in support of Black Lives Matter.
Little-Richardson and her husband, Kevin, have been discussing the protests and what they mean for their family daily. “We’re black people in America,” she said. “We understand racism as something that we deal with daily, both the microaggressions versus overt racism.” Her husband’s co-worker, she noted, was surprised to learn that police had stopped Kevin while driving in “every state,” despite his having done nothing illegal. “On one level, we’re kind of surprised that people didn’t realize at all, but I’m very grateful that people are now recognizing that,” she said. “I support the right of people to gather and make our voices heard, and I’m hopeful maybe for the first time that something does seem to be shifting in the conversation amongst my peers, both nationally and internationally, and that these protests are going to lead to, hopefully, change.”
Boockvar, meanwhile, said the vast majority of people in protests he’s witnessed and participated in have worn masks. “And being outside is important,” he added. Even as protesters find themselves unable to stand six feet apart from one another, Boockvar said he does not expect to see a large uptick in COVID-19 cases as a result of the protests—although there’s “no guarantee.”
Langer seemed equally skeptical of the idea that the protests will send COVID-19 rates soaring. “There’s sunlight, UV kills the virus, people are masked,” he said. “I’d be surprised if it [caused] a massive bump.”
And regardless, all three doctors agreed, the cause is dire.
“It’s something that’s a risk we have to take. This is one of the most profound, most important things I think has ever happened in my life,” Langer said. “What we’re experiencing now... is so important for our children and for the future of this country.”
“This is just so important,” he said. “And I just hope we come out the other side better than we were. I think we will.”