Book of the week: Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital by Sheri Fink

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, doctors at New Orleans’s Memorial Medical Center were forced to make some controversial calls.

(Crown, $27)

Journalist Sheri Fink has reached back into Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath to unearth a story “as inexorable as a Greek tragedy and as gripping as a whodunit,” said Bill Marvel in The Dallas Morning News. On Aug. 29, 2005, floodwaters poured into New Orleans’s Memorial Medical Center, shutting down lights and medical equipment and launching a wider crisis. Days later, with human waste piling up and putrid water rising, Memorial’s doctors made a controversial call: Instead of getting their sickest patients to safety first, they’d send those most able to survive being moved. In the end, 45 bodies were found in the abandoned hospital, resulting in three arrests. Fink, who won a 2010 Pulitzer Prize for a version of the same story, “does not enter this forbidding territory lightly.” Each page in Five Days testifies to her meticulousness.

A story that begins with straightforward “you-are-there” reportage soon “grows more fascinating and horrifying,” said Jeff Sharlet in Bookforum. Fink seems to be pushing readers to ponder more deeply than they have before various life-and-death ethical decisions. “We know what to think of the Memorial doctor who hand-pumps oxygen into the lungs of premature babies”—but what of the staffers who gave up trying to carry a 300-pound patient to the roof for potential helicopter rescue? “Or the doctor who, disgusted by what he believes to be unethical choices, abandons the hospital?” Eventually, Dr. Anna Pou and two nurses allegedly started administering lethal doses of morphine and other drugs to the sickest patients. Oddly, though, “this moment is the most vaguely rendered in Fink’s otherwise razor-sharp narrative,” said Jennifer Latson in the Houston Chronicle. Pou was arrested but never indicted, and because she declined to be interviewed, the truth about her conduct is difficult to ascertain.

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The hospital’s parent company doesn’t come off well at all, said Laura Miller in Tenet Healthcare had established no protocols to follow in a total power failure, and amid the crisis, one Tenet exec spent valuable time helping Fox News secure exclusive access. Yet Five Days isn’t an attempt to assign blame. Ultimately, the book is “a juggernaut assault on Things We’d Rather Not Think About,” beginning with disaster preparedness but not ending there. If we find it hard to condemn Memorial’s staff, “it’s because we all know they were forced—alone, afraid, and in the dark—to make decisions that the rest of us have been putting off for far too long.”

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