Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm Ravaged Hospital was everything that makes nonfiction great to read: a subject worth uncovering, documented by a voice with a clear penchant for obsessive detail. Sherri Fink recounts the struggle for survival at New Orleans’ Memorial Hospital, which acted as a port in previous storms, in the days following Hurricane Katrina; she discusses at length the choices made by hospital staff (several doctors and nurses made the choice to euthanize patients they felt couldn’t be evacuated) and the investigation that followed.
I listened to this as an audiobook, and I could not stop telling people about it. First off, I had no idea things got this bad at Memorial Hospital during Hurricane Katrina. The scenes described were more harrowing than any fiction could be: hospital staff stuffing preemie babies in their shirts to evacuate as there was no space for incubators, nurses ventilating patients by hand due to power outage, stifling heat with smashed windows acting as the only ventilation, while gunshots were heard outside, and rumors of martial law were spreading. Hurricane Katrina was a testament to our government’s inability to organize a response to disaster, and Five Days at Memorial illustrates the high human costs of that inability. This was at points a difficult book to get through; the descriptions are so clear I felt sick even imagining such an experience, let alone living through it. I kept asking myself, “Why doesn’t the army come to relieve these exhausted hospital staff members, and help them evacuate these dying patients?” It was so frustrating to know this happened in America and there was nothing I could do about it now.
The questions of justice presented here are some of the most difficult questions that exist about human life, and at points reminded me of the perplexing moral issues presented in Michael Sandel’s epic Justice class at Harvard, free on iTunes U. Is it right to evacuate the most able-bodied people, who need the least help and will be the quickest to get into helicopters? Or is the more moral choice to evacuate the most sickly to safety first, as they are the most in pain and most in need of help? The questions presented at Memorial Hospital in that hellish time after the storm speak to historical ethical dilemmas, and Fink does a great job of explaining the dangers with and benefits of each choice.
Kirsten Potter narrated the audio version of the book, and did an incredible job. This story could have easily been overdone by a different narrator. Potter managed to stay neutral but interested, the voice of a reporter bearing witness to history rather than a character actor.
Although the second part of the book (covering the aftermath of choices made at the hospital) may not be as gripping as the harrowing account of survival in the storm, I think this is the portion that makes this book so important. We can all guffaw at the tragedy, but examining it with a critical eye is the only thing that will keep it from happening again. Perhaps the most terrifying part of Five Days at Memorial is its end, when Fink embeds with American medical disaster teams after the earthquake in Haiti. Seemingly logical decisions to preserve oxygen for those who need it most almost cost a young woman her life. It seems like in a disaster, the luck lies with those who have the most innovative, creative doctors who are able to see beyond the complicated machines of modern medicine.
- Sheri Fink on Five Days at Memorial Hospital in New Orleans (wnyc.org)
- The Moral Dilemmas of Doctors During Disaster (newyorker.com)
- An excerpt from Sheri Fink’s “Five Days at Memorial” (tv.msnbc.com)