Five Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink is a true account of – using emails, conversation transcriptions, interviews, newspaper articles, and TV reports from the day leading up to, and the days immediately after – Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in August, 2005. The second half of the book covers the ensuing legal events, and has its own impressive set of bibliographic entries. This book is well over 500 pages, and very little space within those pages is wasted. Want to know what happened that day? Read this book.
The book began with a history lesson of New Orleans, her floods, and her hospitals – specifically the hospital known as “Baptist”, originally called Southern Baptist Hospital, renamed Memorial Medical Center in 1996, now Oschner Baptist Medical Center after it’s Katrina-era owners sold it. Once considered the pinnacle of technologically-advanced medical centers, Baptist (er, Memorial) became a horror story when the levees broke. When power was disrupted, medical staff – most who requested the hurricane shift because hospitals were known to be some of the strongest structures in the city, and because they could bring their families – had to take heroic measures to save the more than 150 patients stranded in the building. Patients were carried up six flights of stairs in order to reach the deteriorating helicopter landing pad, where a helicopter may or may not have been waiting for them. (For everyone’s sake, I will not delve into the response of emergency units, FEMA, National Guard, etc. because we all know it was a chaotic clusterflunk that undeniably resulted in the loss of lives. Suffice it to say that patient and staff evacuation from the hospital was erratic, at best.)
The last third of the book was the aftermath. Not just the city repairing itself, but the legal proceedings based off the belief (of many) that unnecessary euthanasia had been carried out among the sickest patients. That ending lives was considered the last and best way out, instead of waiting for rescuers. Dr. Pou was acquitted of all charges, but the fact remains that death was hurried along in quite a few patients.
Fink concluded that New Orleans’ tragedy eventually helped save lives. The time she devoted to the modern day discussion of triage – assigning a level of urgency among patients – was brief but, for me, the most fascinating part of the book. She reported on hospitals that took to the meeting rooms to discuss their own triage standards for possible future catastrophes. The entire state of Maryland took on the topic as a community, hosting discussions with medical professionals, patients, and laypeople at libraries, community centers, hospitals, nursing homes, etc. The results of those conversations were shocking. Not every parent felt that their children should be saved before an adult. And not every senior wanted to be saved.
Sometimes individual medical choices, like triage choices, are less a question of science than they are of values. In a disaster, triage is about deciding what the goal of dividing resources should be for the larger population – whether maximizing number of lives saved, years of lives saved, quality of life, fairness, social trust, or other factors.
I am glad I read this book, as it gave me a lot to think about. This was more than an expose on Baptist (Memorial) Hospital post-Katrina. This wasn’t finger-pointing reporting. This was detailed, well-researched, and open-minded reporting.
Fans of investigative journalism will appreciate the vast bibliography Fink composed and utilized in writing this book. And the details are enough for any fiction fan to feel like they are in the stifling rooms.
Zeitoun by Dave Eggars, because it covers the same city during the same hurricane, but with a Syrian man and wrongful imprisonment. So intense and so well-written. (What has happened to the main character since the book was published is even more mind-blowing.)