The time before COVID-19 can feel like a million years ago.
Watch Netflix’s new documentary series “Lenox Hill” and you’re immediately transported to what we now know to be a simpler time — 2018 and 2019 — when the new coronavirus hadn’t yet besieged New York City and beyond.
Four doctors, two of them pregnant, star in the eight-episode series and succeed at drawing you in with their passion for patients and their ability to juggle their intense jobs and lives outside of Lenox Hill, a hospital established in 1857 to treat people in the immigrant community.
Healthline spoke with Dr. Mirtha J. Macri, DO, a physician in the emergency room who is currently expecting her second child any day now.
We discussed her experience treating an endless stream of patients with a camera rolling, giving birth to her first child as a part of the series, and what it was like working in a New York City hospital during the COVID-19 pandemic.
What was it like to be filmed while working in the ER, being pregnant, and giving birth?
Dr. Mirtha Macri: First of all, I’ve never done anything like this before, so I felt initially I had no idea what to do. Luckily, the directors, Ruthie (Shatz) in particular, was very present throughout the filming, actually. There was a lot of reassurance. They made it so that we definitely felt like the cameras were never there. It was like a mental blocking — the cameras aren’t here, they’re not following me.
They were just so discreet. The cameraman was almost like a ninja. He would just pop up whenever he needed to pop up. The consenting was done beforehand, and then I would walk into the room and they would just be there.
But they would be in a very noninvasive corner. I wouldn’t hear them or see them. So, it was actually kind of surreal at first, and then I just started getting used to it.
Whenever I needed to take a break it was, “OK, I’m going to go do my thing,” and I’d shut off the microphone. It was only two people. It was the director and the cameraperson, so that was nice. It wasn’t like a lot of people around me asking questions. It actually went smoother than I thought it would.
Initially, I was a little worried because the ER is so busy, and there’s nurses and other colleagues asking questions and talking. But, you saw the series, the atmosphere came across as so calming.
How much did they follow you?
It was just certain days. It’s a very small team, so they also had to follow surgeons (Dr. David Langer and Dr. John Boockvar) that have very long surgeries, and Dr. Amanda Little-Richardson — women in labor, it’s just so unpredictable — so somehow they made it work.
I usually have my schedule in advance for the ER, so I was able to give them my schedule and they would tell me the days and the shifts that they would come by. It would be pretty often for a while for several months, actually, until I had the baby.
Were you hesitant to have them film you giving birth?
We started filming when I was a little earlier in my pregnancy, actually, and by the time she asked me, I felt so comfortable with (directors) Ruthie (Shatz) and Adi (Barash) that I was actually not hesitant at all.
I already had gotten to see the way they were working and how respectful they were of the patients and the providers and the staff, and the space in general, that I felt like this was not going to be something I’m going to be uncomfortable with — and I wasn’t.
They were just so very respectful of the space and the time, and if I needed a minute and I needed them to step out — which actually never happened — but they were open to whatever I needed, so the experience was actually quite great.
Why did you agree to do the documentary?
They explained to me what the idea was, the vision, and I actually got to see their work. I had some time to sit down and watch their work that they did in Israel. They did a similar series in Israel in a hospital, same concept, where doctors from different specialities were followed and they were filmed, both their personal and professional life.
I actually just fell in love with the series. Then I got to have a couple of film meetings with Ruthie and Adi, and I just loved their ideas and their vision, and just them as people.
What story were you hoping that the documentary would tell, and do you think it succeeded?
I was hoping that the documentary would give an insight into how our personal lives tie into our professional lives, which I think 100 percent the series was able to show a part of that.
Keep in mind that the series only showed a very small piece of what our professional lives are like, the time in the ER.
I wanted the series to portray the struggles that we have within our specialty, especially in a city like New York City where we’re met with such a diverse group of patients, undergoing such a diverse group of health problems, and the challenges we meet with health insurances, healthcare, and a system that supports them.
Especially in New York City we have a huge homeless and psychiatric population that is unfortunately saturated, and sometimes in my eyes not supported enough because the system is so saturated, so a lot of these patients are lost to follow up and care.
How we as doctors do advocate for patient care, and especially in emergency medicine where patients don’t make an appointment to see us. They don’t sign consents to have us do procedures on them and necessarily to be our patients for an extended period of time.
Sometimes we just have one moment with them, and that’s the moment that we have to help them — and that’s it. And sometimes we never see them again.
So, it’s a very challenging field in that we have just a very small slot of time to do something important to help them. Sometimes we don’t know what they need, and it’s challenging.
I think the show, at least for my patient population in emergency medicine, definitely portrayed that. My patient population obviously is very different from the others, but it did portray that it’s challenging.
What was it like to work in a New York City hospital during the pandemic?
Definitely unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before in my career. Speaking to colleagues that were in other parts of the country, I even had colleagues ask me, “Is that really what’s happening in New York City?” and it was.
It was completely unbelievable the amount of people that were falling sick and struggling with resources.
The hospital itself did a job that was just unbelievably amazing, especially Northwell (Health). We had to make spaces within our hospital, within spaces. Even our own space, our emergency room, had an entire inpatient floor upstairs made for COVID patients, and then there was the (USNS) Comfort, and the Jacob Javits (Center).
I just thought it was just such an amazing way that we all came together as a team. It really brought us together, professionally and personally. It really brought the entire team together. It was all hands on deck, our hospital system.
My experience was very supportive. If we needed to make changes, if we needed to make adjustments, it was all done. And so I’m lucky in that it was just so systematic and it flowed really well.
Luckily, everybody did OK despite the change in morale that happens in something like this, where everybody’s stressed and worried and anxious because you can’t help not to be that way.
But it’s a field where you typically don’t feel that way, because this is our comfort zone. This is what we do in emergency medicine. But when COVID came, it was like, wow. We’re all on board for this ride — and we’re still recovering, and I think we’re going in a great direction.
How are you handling that experience emotionally?
It’s better. In the height of it, I’m pregnant on top of that again, and it was all about keeping myself safe, and my pregnancy safe and my family safe. So during some of that time I had to be separated from my husband and my son. I quarantined them with my parents because I was just too hesitant to possibly expose them and then the rest of my family.
So it was a very trying time. It was actually 7 weeks of being separated from them and seeing my family on FaceTime, which is something that I never imagined would happen… I am so thankful to my colleagues and the staff that I worked with, because we all came together, checked up on each other, made sure that we were OK.
I’m not the only one that chose to do that. There were other colleagues that decided to quarantine, because in the beginning, we were like, even if you do the best decon [decontamination] procedure when you come home, there’s just that underlying thought in your mind, like what if I expose my entire family?
Did you see a lot of people die in the ER?
Yes, there was a lot of critical that came in. Our volume was definitely high in critical care. I did pull out right at the peak of it because of the pregnancy and my concerns for it, so I did start doing some telemedicine as well.
So, I haven’t been back since the peak started back in April, because I’m due in 3 weeks (with another boy). Northwell just did amazing. They were just so supportive.
Even though (pregnancy) wasn’t listed as one of the high-risk exposures, they still sought out and said if somebody’s pregnant, let’s see how we can repurpose them or help them, make sure that they’re OK during this time.
You have a baby and then you’re about to have another baby, we don’t know enough about the virus to know how it could affect a pregnancy. There’s only theories. So that was very, very anxiety-driving.
Have you heard from your staff that it’s calmer in the ER?
Oh, yes. I’m still doing work from home. I still go on the board every day. I connect with my colleagues. I look at the volume. I do callbacks. I do telemedicine for the ER, so I’m connected to them.
I recently met with all of them, actually, in person, and our meetings started up again and patient case reviews, so I’m still doing all of that. I’m just not currently doing a clinical shift right now. Our volume is significantly down, and numbers of COVID positives have gone down.
What impact have the George Floyd protests had on Lenox Hill?
According to my colleagues, and I go on the board a lot, we did treat a lot of protest-goers. We’re doing a lot of the COVID testing after protests. Our volume definitely went up that week, but it was not, I don’t believe it was COVID-related. It was more, just when you have so many people in a crowd, somebody’s bound to trip and fall.
We’re seeing a lot more non-COVID-related visits, which is definitely a good thing. We also have to realize the elderly population and the sick population that’s been home during this time that wouldn’t see their doctors. Now they’re coming in for care because they need the care.
But overall the protests were pretty peaceful. (The protests) definitely needed to happen, and I think the city is already down on numbers of COVID.
Did you know the other doctors before you filmed, and have you become friends?
No, we didn’t know each other. Yes, we’ve all gotten together on separate occasions, not a lot. I mean, we’re so busy, and one of the providers moved to California, so we don’t see her but we have all kept in touch in some form.
Actually, one of them came to visit me after I had my son, which was so nice. I’d never met him before. Dr. Langer, he came to see me in the hospital, so that was very sweet of him to come visit.
How are you juggling everything — working from home, raising your 2-year-old — given that you’re about to give birth?
It’s actually very calming right now. I’m glad that I’m about to give birth and that I’m not giving birth in the height, in the peak of COVID.
We’re still not having visitors (at the birth), but we can have a support person, obviously, and my husband will be there. I’m OK with that. My parents and my son aren’t going to come to see us at the hospital, but I’m OK with that. It is what it is.
I feel a little better now because the numbers are definitely down, the city’s reopening. Now all the hospitals have a systematic approach. We’re testing everybody, so I feel better about that. So, it’s not too bad.
You talked a lot about leaving New York in the series. What are your plans now?
I’m still here. You know, I don’t know. I’m still thinking about it. My husband just finished law school, so we stayed in New York for him to finish law school. I’m glad I did that, because then I got to do the show.
He just finished this past December, so right now with COVID, I think things are just up in the air. I’m definitely not leaving in the next year or two. Definitely not.