NatGeo’s ‘The First Wave’ film documents pandemic from Northwell’s front line

The Island Now
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - NOVEMBER 18: (L-R) Byron Pitts, Matthew Heineman, Dr. Nathalie Dougé, Ahmed Ellis, Alexis Ellis, Brussels Jabon, Kellie Wunsch, Karl Arabian, Jenna Millman and Leslie Norville speak onstage at DOC NYC closing night screening of National Geographic Documentary Films' THE FIRST WAVE at Beacon Theatre on November 18, 2021 in New York City. (Photo by Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images for National Geographic)

Twenty-one months after COVID-19 crashed down on New Yorkers, Northwell Health employees turned out in force for the New York City premiere of the National Geographic documentary film “The First Wave” on November 18 at the Beacon Theatre in Manhattan.

The film, by Oscar-nominated director Matthew Heineman, offers a powerful and unflinching look inside the halls of Long Island Jewish (LIJ) Medical Center in Queens between March and June 2020.

It bears witness to the honor, sacrifice and dedication of those frontline workers. And it captures what New Yorkers went through during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. There are gut-wrenching scenes of suffering and death – but also stories of resiliency, hope and recovery. Most of all, humanity shines throughout “The First Wave.”

“The work depicted in this documentary, a collaboration between our health system and National Geographic, shows experiences that the general public hasn’t yet seen,” said Michael Dowling, president and CEO of Northwell Health. “This incredible film takes us much deeper because we offered the crew full access to the life-and-death events that took place during the first wave at Long Island Jewish Medical Center. That’s something we needed to do to help people fully comprehend and appreciate what was happening with our patients and staff.”

One of the former patients featured in the film, Ahmed Ellis, a 36-year-old NYC school security officer from Long Island, spent a month on a ventilator battling COVID-19 before emerging from his near-death experience. He arrived at LIJ struggling to breathe on April 6, 2020 – the peak of “The First Wave” in New York – and remained at LIJ for 44 days.

During his hospitalization, he survived the worst of the virus, but required extensive rehabilitation to learn to eat, stand and walk once more.

Ellis stood tall and received a standing ovation from the audience at the Beacon Theatre as he stepped onstage for a post-screening interview with the cast and director. His story was just one of the emotional threads that run through the film. But it took emotional and physical courage to document any of it, as Mr. Heineman attested.

“We woke up in March 2020, like everybody, terrified by what was about to happen to our country and our world,” said Heineman, who explained to the audience why he decided to train his lens on what eventually became “The First Wave.” “We were inundated by headlines, stats and misinformation. And I think we felt this enormous obligation to put a human face on this epidemic.”

Dowling agreed to allow the filmmaker access inside COVID units at LIJ during those chaotic and deadly first months of the pandemic. The result is a film that is true to the moment and captures the profound impact the virus left in its wake.

“I continue to be in awe of our Northwell team members – our nurses, physicians, EMTs, hospital staff, frontline workers and first responders – who faced the overwhelming fear and uncertainty of this pandemic as the professionals that they are dedicated to care for and protect our patients and our communities,” said Dr. David Battinelli, senior vice president at Northwell, who led off the evening.

Northwell Health, the largest health care provider and private employer in New York State bore the brunt of the first wave. The health system has since treated more than 250,000 COVID patients. It also lost 24 staffers to the pandemic. 

The film will open in nine American cities on Nov. 19. Watch the trailer here:

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