“Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital” by Sheri Fink— The Quest for Truth and Justice

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Fink, Sheri. “Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital”, Crown, 2013.

The Quest for Truth and Justice

Amos Lassen

Having been in New Orleans and experiencing Hurricane Katrina has to have been a turning point in my life and in the lives of so many others. I have never understood why the book market was not flooded with after things calmed down and now eight years later, there are is still not a lot written about what went on as a major American city struggled to survive. Having been born and raised in New Orleans, I discovered that no matter where we may go, New Orleanians have something of the city that is always with them and still now, living in Boston after seven years in Arkansas, I still think of myself as a New Orleanian. I read everything I can about the city and I have been back twice to visit but I realize that I had to move on.
I had heard about Sheri Fink’s “Five Days at Memorial” and was very anxious to read it. What is strange, for me, at least, is that those of us who lived though the storm seem to know the least about it and it is impossible to describe the feelings I had as I stayed in my apartment, as the waters rose, for a full week after Katrina made land fall. I remember the fear but not the details and I really believe that had the National Guard not forced me out, I would have died there. We knew nothing of what was going on outside of us and it was not until I was taken to a shelter in Pine Bluff, Arkansas that the story began to be told to me.

Now Pulitzer Prize winner Sheri Fink has reconstructed some of what happened in New Orleans and it is an amazing read that kept me at home this past weekend. Fink writes about the deaths of patients at the Memorial Hospital and as she does, she (and the reader) searches for truth and justice. Using just five days, she pulls us into the lives of people who fought hard to live as craziness surrounded them. What so many find hard to understand about going through a storm like Katrina is that so many were forced to make choices and many of these were difficult because they involved life and death. We can only imagine what was going on in the hospitals as power was gone and the waters rose. It became a necessity for hospital staff to decide who to let go and who to try to save. Manpower was short and the hospitals were full. Just as some patients fought for life, so did the hospitals. Death was soon rationed challenging the belief that only God has the option of deciding between life and death. Sheri Fink looks at the situations that hospital staff members were thrown into and also shows how America was not prepared to deal with a disaster the size of Katrina. In doing so she changes the way that we think about people in crises.

Those who were sheltered in the New Orleans Memorial Hospital during Katrina soon realized that the crisis inside the hospital was worse than the storm. Since there was no power, there could be no evacuation and leadership was nil. Caring for the sick was chaos and the medical staff faced difficult decisions and some of the choices made were failures. Some of the patients who seemed to have no chance of survival were given lethal shots even as a form of evacuation began. Fink recreates the storm, what happened afterwards and the investigation and as she does, we are forced to consider questions of ethics, race, resources, history and the greater good. We need to read this just to understand human behavior during crisis. By using Katrina and the New Orleans hospital we see what can go wrong and we see the difficulties faced during a catastrophe. Even today, there are just a few hospitals with disaster plans or enough supplies to get through a storm. There are not enough back-up generators and when elevators go out floors of people are lost. Hospitals rely on scare tactics and greed becomes the way of the day. Rumors rum rampant and family input is neither available nor heeded when it is.

This is a very hard book to read especially for someone who was there but it is also a very important book. Modern American medicine did not know what to do when it was most needed. Things have not yet improved and there seems to be few lessons learned. We are therefore quick to believe that this could all happen again. There was no organization during Katrina and the result was a loss of life and total chaos.

The first half of the book is about the first five days but then it moves to the legal and political aspects of what happened and the homicide investigation brought on by the state of Louisiana. We see many people divided over whether crimes had indeed been committed or not and these people are depicted as decent and honest. Many of the narratives just end with no conclusions and no regard for the legal ethics of the medical profession. The research here is amazing and there are no claims without evidence. Most of us are very lucky that we will never have to deal with choices that were made here.

“Fink’s descriptions of the flooded hospital, her extensive interviews with those who were there, profiles of investigators and study of the history and ethics of triage and euthanasia come very close to a full airing of how a disaster can upset society’s usual ethical codes, and how that played out at New Orleans’ Memorial Medical Center….Fink has written a compelling and revealing account.”– Seattle Times

Five Days At Memorial unfolds in two parts—an impeccably researched reconstruction of the events inside the hospital during the disaster, and a gripping account of the investigation and trial that followed. Pulitzer-Prize-winning Sheri Fink, who is also a physician and a former relief worker in combat zones, lays out every shred of evidence, but leaves the final judgment to the reader. Five Days at Memorial treats the chain of events at the hospital as a microcosm that raises vital and increasingly relevant questions about end-of-life care, and the ethics of euthanasia in extraordinary circumstances.”– Macleans

This is a book that cries out to be read and we must all make ourselves aware of what happened. I would never have believed that I would live through something like this but I did and it could happen to any or to all of us.

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