An unlicensed nurse is arrested for practicing medicine. Based on a true story. [ Jesse credits: Dir: Glenn Jordan/ Lee Remick, Scott Wilson, Richard Marcus/ 95 min/ Drama/ Anti-Regulation]
The nurse portrayed here is a heroic character. She routinely saves the injured and treats the sick. She’s consumed with her profession and she’s good at it. When a medical emergency strikes in her small desert community, she’s the one people call, as there’s no doctor within a hundred miles.
Her importance is demonstrated in an early scene in which she responds to a traffic accident and saves a local boy by performing a makeshift tracheotomy. It’s plain that her experience qualifies her for what she’s doing, and in any case, she doesn’t work entirely on her own but under a doctor’s supervision. The doctor comes into town once a week, and the rest of the time she takes care of his patients as a sort of nurse practitioner in a satellite office. Most of the patients whom she serves are well satisfied with the arrangement. However, she doesn’t have a license, and there’s the rub. Overzealous state regulators learn that she’s treating patients and arrest her for “practicing medicine without a license.”
A woman of some confidence, she’s openly defiant about the charge. She fights it because she believes that one should always do what is right—in this case treating those who would otherwise go without medical care—even when the law forbids it. So far, so good. However, her legal defense isn’t really a challenge to licensing per se but simply an argument that she was (broadly speaking) following doctor’s orders and was, therefore, implicitly operating under the doctor’s license. The stronger point, that patients should be allowed to seek medical care from anyone they choose, is never really made. Nonetheless, the film, based on the true story of nurse Jesse Maloney, is adequately slanted in the right direction. You can’t watch it without gaining at least an increased skepticism about medical regulation.
Lee Remick gives a spirited performance in the leading role, and this type of character—the middle-class, hard-working hero—is just right for her. As for the story itself, there are some soap-operatic aspects to it, but otherwise it’s well constructed and moving.
The best line in the film occurs near the end. When the state regulators walk out of the courthouse, having been defeated in their case against Jesse, the local sheriff and friend of Jesse reminds them of the irony that they just attempted to eliminate the only medical help for a hundred miles. Says the sheriff: “I want to caution you to drive carefully on our desert highway … There’s one thing though, and I really don’t know what to do, maybe you can help me. If you do have a bad accident, and we’re all praying that you don’t, if you get hurt real bad, should I send Jesse out to help you, or would you prefer to just die?”