“Five Days At Memorial” is a compelling examination of Hurricane Katrina’s impact on one New Orleans hospital, the life-and-death decisions that were made in the following days and an examination of how improved disaster planning would benefit many organizations.
Author Sheri Fink’s work centers on Memorial Medical Center from Aug. 31, 2005, to Sept. 1, following the failure of the city’s levees in the wake of Katrina and the widespread flooding that caused throughout the city.
But the book also shows that the area around the hospital — located in the Freret neighborhood — experienced similar floods and similar challenges as far back as 1927. And it tells that the lessons learned from Katrina resulted in different outcomes in the wake of Superstorm Sandy on the East Coast in 2012.
At Memorial, staff battled stifling heat and the lack of water and electricity. They fought to keep patients alive and comfortable, evacuating some from a little-used helipad and others from airboats that floated the city streets.
Central to the story are the decisions regarding patients that it was feared could not survive evacuation. The book details how some DNR patients were given lethal dosages of morphine and a sedative. The state eventually charged an ER doctor and two ICU nurses with second degree murder. Charges were eventually dropped against the two nurses and a grand jury refused to indict the doctor.
The book is enthralling as it describes the challenges posed by the chaos and fears experienced during those first few days of the disaster. It poses moral dilemmas on how we deal with patients during times of high stress. And in the end, it helps you realize that we should all prepare to deal with the worst.
Fink, a former physician who won a Pulitzer Prize for the article that spawned the book, concludes her work with this:
Life and death in the immediate aftermath of a crisis most often depends on the preparedness, performance and decision making of the individuals on the scene.
It is hard for any of us to know how we would act under such terrible pressure.
But we, at least, have the luxury to prepare and resolve how we would want to make the decisions.
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Here’s a link to an NPR audiostory from “Morning Edition” on the book, plus a couple of written outtakes from the story. Perhaps most interesting are the many reader comments at the bottom of the story; most of the comments are critical toward Fink, but obviously most of the commenters have not read the book. I challenge you: Read the book, then return to read the comments. Whether you agree with the decisions made at Memorial during those trying times, it’s hard to fault Fink’s book, which relates many viewpoints in a reasoned manner.
In this Q&A with the New York Times, Fink explains many of the questions that arise in the book and how she went about recreating those hectic days. This is a really good read after you’ve read the book and understand many of the references mentioned.
You may eventually see this story on the big screen, following reports that the producer of “Captain Phillips” has acquired the movie rights to the book.