Five Days at Memorial

What would you do? That is the question the reader asks while reading the gripping Five Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink.

Five Days at Memorial

Five Days is a detailed account of Hurricane Katrina and its effect on Memorial Hospital, and how the lack of preparedness on all levels (federal, state, city, corporate) was as much a disaster as the hurricane.

It is a story of how the families, patients and healthcare professionals who camped out at Memorial during the storm coped with unbelievable pressure, tremendous humidity and heat, no running water or electricity, wild rumors exacerbated by the periodic sounds of gunfire, escalating fear and sleep deprivation mixed with the overpowering smells of sweat, disease, human waste and death.

It is how doctors tagged patients with numbers and prioritized them based on their health status and likelihood of getting better; the numbers determined if, and in what order, they would be scheduled for difficult helicopter evacuations.

Ultimately it is about how a group of individuals decided, after four days of worsening conditions, the best and most humane option, for many of the remaining patients, was to euthanize those the doctors deemed too weak or sick too be rescued.

Fink’s research is unparalleled; she interviewed more than 500 people and sought out experts and first-hand accounts for six years. The tone is matter of fact and encompasses many points of view: doctors, nurses, patients, family members, National Guard helicopter pilots and many others. The reader sympathizes with the patients and hospital staff involved and strains to understand how awful the situation must have been to push good doctors to make previously unimaginable decisions.

Forty-five people died at Memorial during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, more than any other hospital or nursing home in New Orleans during that same timeframe. Eighteen of those deaths were deemed suspicious and likely criminal. Amid a media frenzy and emotional public outcry, charges were investigated and documented, but the grand jury refused to indict. Yet as Fink writes, “The juror was convinced — and, she believed, all of her fellow jurors were too — that a crime had occurred on that fifth day at Memorial.”  

How would each of us cope in a disaster, if professional obligations demanded us to work without knowing if our families were safe, if our homes were intact or if crime was rampant around us? How safe and prepared are our local hospitals for a Katrina-level disaster? How would we allocate scarce resources among many needy people?  Fink summarizes the dilemma before us on the last page of the book.

“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.”

Join the discussion on July 29 as the Keepinitreal book group of the Evanston Library reads Five Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink.