For many Americans, Hurricane Katrina was defined by the images of people stranded on rooftops, wading through neck-deep water, or standing wretchedly in the iconic Superdome. But for those living in New Orleans and the surrounding area, these images were just the beginning. As residents tried to put their lives back together in the weeks that followed, those who were unable to evacuate also faced coming to terms with the raw experiences of those harrowing days in the city as they waited for help to arrive. Many who carried the greatest burdens were those who had taken on the greatest responsibilities: public servants, security professionals and health workers.
As was the case with the police force, questions were raised after the catastrophe about the emergency response of medical professionals staffing various hospitals. While some weathered the hurricane with notable success, others were not as prepared to confront the storm. One of the most notable cases was Memorial Medical Center, which sat in an area heavily flooded by Lake Pontchartrain. While nearby Charity Hospital lost only eight of about 350 patients, 45 of the fewer than 300 patients at Memorial died during the storm and its aftermath. Sheri Fink’s FIVE DAYS AT MEMORIAL centers on the question of whether the opportunity for these patients was squandered, or whether it simply didn’t arise.
"[Fink's] book is masterfully researched, and despite the chaos of those days, she is able to create a near-360° view of the days before the last living individuals were rescued from the hospital."
For over 400 pages, Fink unravels a terrifying disaster and the consequences that continued to ripple through the Memorial community long after the last rescue helicopter took off. Her book is masterfully researched, and despite the chaos of those days, she is able to create a near-360° view of the days before the last living individuals were rescued from the hospital.
Almost 300 patients and over 1,000 others sheltered at Memorial, which had served as ample protection from storms in the past. This time, however, the hospital’s resources did not prove up to scratch. Fink’s description of the hospital, its parent company, and even the city’s preparedness is representative of a crisis faced by others nationwide: too little money to complete necessary infrastructure updates and a hope that putting it off wouldn’t compound the disaster that was bound to come one day.
Possessing an MD and a PhD, and experience as a rescue worker in disaster zones, Fink is uniquely qualified to tackle this subject. More importantly, she is a talented journalist who is more than capable of presenting information in an unbiased fashion that allows readers to make their own decisions regarding the ethics at play. It would be easy to pluck at heartstrings by focusing on the individual stories of those who died at Memorial, or to point fingers at the corporations and government players that didn’t come through fast enough, but instead Fink centers the book on the ethics of a disaster zone.
FIVE DAYS AT MEMORIAL is built around a question that was not being hashed out on the news or discussed by politicians when the levees broke. In a situation of grave emergency, in which uncertainty reigns, just how far is ending a life from allowing a life to end? How should health workers determine the evacuation priority of patients when so much is uncertain? Some of those involved in the events have a clear, unwavering opinion. The majority, however, express ambivalence --- it could be that the claim of bringing comfort merely masks doctors’ growing terror at their own vulnerability, but it is just as viable that sedation seems the only option left to dying patients with Do Not Resuscitate orders.
It may have only been five days that patients, doctors, nurses, families and loved ones were stranded at Memorial Medical Center, but this book makes it clear that what they experienced there will be with them the rest of their lives. Reading FIVE DAYS AT MEMORIAL will be with you for the rest of your life as well.
Reviewed by Rebecca Kilberg on September 13, 2013