Documentary Review: “My Last Days: Claire Wineland”

Online documentary follows an inspirational teenager with cystic fibrosis

Claire Wineland, 19, has cystic fibrosis. She’s living on “borrowed time” as the cliché goes, because she has lived longer than doctors led her and her parents to believe she would. Claire has faced the prospect of death for her entire life. Yet if you were to watch her YouTube videos or meet her in real life, apart from her breathing apparatus, you’d have no idea that she was dealing with a terminal illness. She exudes personality, warmth and happiness. Her story is, ultimately, one of hope, love and living life to the fullest.

The CW (an American broadcast television network) has an online web series called “My Last Days” that features terminally ill patients and their stories. The first 30-minute documentary episode focuses on Claire. It features interviews with Claire, her family, friends and others who’ve come to know her.

Portrait of Claire Wineland smiling

Credit: bellomag.com

The episode opens with a self-recorded video of Claire, 18 years old at the time, standing outside of the hospital she’s staying at in Long Beach, California. She says that she has just sneaked out of her room, but didn’t want to record herself actually walking out of the hospital because that would have looked “really, really, really bad.” She continues to say that her plan for the moment is to catch an Uber ride to downtown Los Angeles in order to make it to the Bernie Sanders rally that is happening later that day.

From there the documentary crew takes over, and we watch her experience at the rally. The short opening segment ends with her actually meeting Sanders, and she is clearly ecstatic and almost at a loss for words. It’s a great introduction to Claire, as we get to see her full personality in action and how much energy she has. “I had a moment where I was like, ‘I’m not gonna meet Bernie Sanders, that would be stupid,’” she says at one point. “‘Oh my God, I’m gonna meet Bernie Sanders’…Apparently I had acted cool!”

The documentary then shifts its focus to Claire Wineland, her family and her life dealing with cystic fibrosis. The next portion begins with a YouTube video of Claire saying, “So I’m dying,” after which she takes a long sip of tea. “…faster than everyone else,” she finishes, while laughing. Again, it’s just a great look into who Claire is and how she’s come to terms with her situation and the disease that clearly does not dictate how she lives her life.

Early in the episode we are brought into Claire’s hospital room. She opens the door, saying, “What’s uuuuuuup, welcome to my room! [Room] 228 is where it’s at!” and proceeds to give a short tour. She describes the things she’s painted on the walls, including the solar system next to her bed. (She “totally forgot to paint Mars!” ) She also has a piano that she uses when she wants to “jam out and annoy the nurses.” The room is covered in magazine cutouts, posters and the like, and looks like an ordinary teenager’s bedroom.

A Passion For Public Speaking

Claire mentions about halfway through the documentary that she’s always had an interest in public speaking. She says that when she was younger, she would force family members to sit and listen to her talk. She had always just spoken freely, but never had legitimate training or a formal public speaking education. Claire mentions that ultimately she wants to be a motivational speaker. It’s clear that her charisma and honesty about life and death would be great foundations.

Claire Wineland speaking at FIU

Credit: fiu.edu

The director of the “My Last Days” series, Justin Baldoni, surprises Claire when he brings in Richard Greene, a world-renowned public speaking coach, to her hospital room one day. Greene has agreed to help Claire craft her speaking skills so that she can get her message about life out to the world. He tells her that, after watching some of her YouTube videos, she is “destined to impact and change the world.”

In the final scene, we follow Claire and Baldoni to the Life is Beautiful festival, where Baldoni is scheduled to speak. We see him introduced and he comes to the stage. After only a few minutes, he calls out Claire, who’s in the front row, and brings her onstage. Handing the microphone to her, he says, “This is your speech.” She agrees, somewhat reluctantly, but what follows is amazing. She delivers a heartfelt, honest speech with (from what we can tell) no preparation whatsoever. She may have known deep down that this would happen, but for all intents and purposes, she spoke on the fly. It is truly inspiring, to say the least.

When the episode first aired online in August 2016, Claire says that the doctors have given her about a year left to live. “But that doesn’t really matter to me because death is inevitable,” she says. “But living a life that we are proud of…that is something we can actually control.”

The idea that we can control our own happiness permeates the entire documentary. It’s fraught with emotion, yet ultimately leaves you with a sense of hope. Claire is still alive, now 19, and one can only hope that she has many years left so she can continue to inspire more people to live lives they are proud of.

You can find the documentary here.

Claire Wineland has also started a foundation, Claire’s Place, to support families living with cystic fibrosis.

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