'One East' delivers a powerful message of compassion


Baltimore's Susan Hadary Cohen and William A. Whiteford make great little documentaries. "One East," their latest (airing at 10 tonight on Channels 22 and 67), is a celebration of simple goodness and its capacity to relieve suffering.

The program is a half-hour look at life inside the Mason F. Lord Chronic Hospital and Nursing facility where many elderly patients -- some in their 90s -- suffer from dementia and/or physical disabilities. Loss of normal inhibitions, loss of memory, confusion and anger are some of the effects of dementia.

HTC The premise here is that despite these patients' disabilities, their sense of self lives on and they deserve compassionate care that allows them a sense of dignity.

We meet patients who don't know the day or month, who believe they have babies to care for, who speak in baby-talk themselves and some whose language is mostly profane. Initially, some seem beyond help. But then we see two workers at the facility -- Mary C. Smith and Henrietta E. Lashley -- helping these patients eat, wash their faces or comb their hair. And, slowly, the camera shows the patients responding to the kindness.

The special thing about "One East" is that we, the viewers, come to recognize these patients as human beings and start to care about them, too. With that recognition comes a pang of guilt that when we first saw them, we had wanted to turn away.

"One East" has moments that are as carefully crafted and eloquent as anything you'll see in any TV documentary this year. The final scene features an elderly saxophonist playing a wavering version of the achingly sad "Tennessee Waltz," while one of the patients says how "happy" she is. It is the perfect note of melancholy acceptance of what we call the human condition and the transcendence found in people connecting heart to heart.

Ms. Cohen and Mr. Whiteford showed us the transforming power of compassion last year in "Marge and Walter," a documentary about a Baltimore woman caring for her paralyzed husband. That was inspired filmmaking. "One East" is even better. It's message of how compassion can humanize and empower is inspirational.

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