As an adult with spina bifida and a double amputee, I must confess that I am remarkably jaded when it comes to films, whether documentaries or narrative features, such as The Invisible Patients, an Indiana made film currently screening at the 2016 Indy Film Fest at IMA's Toby Theatre.
After over 50+ surgeries myself and having been homeless twice almost solely because of a body that at any given moment can decide I require medical care that is beyond my financial means, I was both deeply engrossed in this film from director Patrick O'Connor and more than a tad frustrated by its almost saintly portrayal of its central subject, ironically not the actual "invisible patients" but the mobile nurse practitioner, Jessica Macleod, who has committed her professional, and in many cases personal, life to their care.
Macleod, despite my reservations with how she is portrayed here, is almost the dream nurse practitioner whose steady presence and compassionate care for some of Southwest Indiana's most vulnerable and truly forgotten individuals adds a tremendously humane and compassionate face to a healthcare industry that can often feel impersonal and solely profit driven.
The Invisible Patients largely centers on Macleod's care for four patients including Roger Brown, a far too young man with Duchenne's Muscular Dystrophy nearing the end of his life, Ron Riordan, another young man seemingly whose traumatic brain injury has left him seemingly trapped in his body and in a dysfunctional, potentially abusive, situation with a possessive brother who functions as primary caregiver, and, finally, Wink and Patty, an elderly couple with a reputation for being hard to serve and potentially for selling prescription painkillers meant for their use has left them blacklisted by nearly every healthcare provider in the area other than Macleod's mobile miracle, a company called MD2U that she began working for in 2013.
The Invisible Patients is at its most riveting when it becomes an incredibly personalized exploration of some of the most urgent healthcare issues facing our nation, from the living conditions of the elderly poor and end-of-life care, to the soaring costs of hospitalization, complexity of insurance and over-prescription of opiates. O'Connor faces these issues head-on, lamenting, for example, when Wink and Patty are no longer able to be seen by Macleod due to a change in their "Obamacare." There's also, at least in my estimation, one of the film's best scenes involving Macleod's fierce, and potentially risky, advocacy for Riordan when she becomes concerned about his welfare in the home.
In these scenes, The Invisible Patients had me both hooked and shook up.
The Invisible Patients is less riveting, though no less passionate, in its frequent scenes of Macleod sitting in her SUV, which is likely more valuable than the homes she visits on a daily basis, discussing the difficult task of compartmentalizing a life that sees poverty and dying on a daily basis while attempting to balance being a wife and mother and dealing with the societal stereotypes that she is somehow less without an M.D. after her name when, in reality, nurses do about 80-90% of what physicians do and are, in most cases, considered to be more patient-centered. These scenes, while relevant to the discussion, at times felt distracting in a film purported to be about these "invisible patients" as it focuses the lens far too intently on Macleod's compassionate yet far well compensated and only modestly self-sacrificing care. In other words, she's a high quality nurse practitioner NOT Mother Theresa.
Here's the thing. While it may seem like I'm picking on The Invisible Patients, the truth is I still found myself completely captivated throughout its 88-minute running time and found myself wishing I had a healthcare practitioner like Macleod on my side. O'Connor compassionately and with dignity takes us inside the most vulnerable moments of these lives yet does so without exploiting them for the sake of "entertainment." For that, he deserves major kudos. My sense is that The Invisible Patients is destined to be Indy Film Fest's most popular amongst the documentary features and it's easily the festival's most emotionally resonant and satisfying experience.
“The Invisible Patients” screens at 11 a.m. EDT on Saturday, July 16, and 7 p.m. EDT on Thursday, July 21, at the Indianapolis Museum of Art’s Toby Theater as part of the Indy Film Fest’s Hoosier Lens Feature series. It is also in competition with the festival's documentary features.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic