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

December 31, 2013

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When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, the greatest damage came not from the storm itself but from the catastrophic failure of the levee system, flooding 80% of the city. Even though New Orleans had faced similar emergencies in the past, it was unprepared for the type of destruction Katrina brought. Many of those who could not evacuate were trapped without food, drinkable water or power. And among those trapped were nearly 2,000 patients, doctors, nurses and support staff at Memorial Hospital in the center or town. When the floodwater came, it knocked out the emergency power generators, leaving everyone at Memorial in the dark and in very dire straits.

This book chronicles the five days following Katrina, but specifically focuses on a series of shocking decisions made by a small group of doctors. Lacking the necessary tools to care for patients or the ability to, in their judgment, successfully evacuate them, doctors administered lethal doses of morphine and other drugs, euthanizing (some would argue murdering) as many as two dozen people. One doctor, Anna Pou, was charged with four counts of second-degree murder. She went before a grand jury but was not indicted for her involvement in the deaths. Her story, her actions and her ensuing case are the central narrative here.

There are so many issues wrapped up in this story, not the least being emergency preparedness (or lack thereof) and the calamitous collapse of nearly every support system in New Orleans. Then there are the heroic stories of the doctors and nurses at Memorial who worked tirelessly to keep patients alive and continue care despite the apocalyptic conditions. And then there are the big questions: How does a doctor come to the conclusion that euthanizing a patient is the right thing to do? Can mercy killing ever be the right decision? When resources are limited, how does one prioritize who will benefit from those resources when it will mean death for someone else?

These are the questions for an ethics class. They are hard questions to confront in hypotheticals, let alone in reality. It has been said that the rest of the country moved on while New Orleans continued to suffer for years after Katrina. Perhaps some of the truths that came out of Katrina were too uncomfortable for most people to contemplate. They are faced here. Fink throws a spotlight on what has to be one of the darkest corners of recent U.S. history and makes us think about things that are very unsettling. Because you can’t help but wonder, if you were in the same situation, what would you do?

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. January 1, 2014 6:38 am

    I’ve heard about this book in several places and it seems really intriguing, but also quite challenging. Adding it to my reading list!

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