Monday, June 2, 2014

Five Days at Memorial: Sheri Fink would look good in a cape probably

Five Days at Memorial is a painstakingly reconstructed retrospective of the events at Memorial Medical Center in the days immediately following Hurricane Katrina. The short of it is that early into those five long days, floodwater knocked out the hospital’s generators and left patients and staff to make do without life-saving medical equipment or air conditioning or plumbing. Rescue was slow in coming, and tension steadily climbing. More than 40 patients never made it out of the hospital alive, and an investigation into these deaths in the months after the storm revealed that a number of critically ill patients were apparently injected with a combination of drugs intended to hasten their deaths.

Most of us closely followed the news coverage during and after Katrina. But the trouble with getting your news as it happens is that situations that have layers of complexity tend to get boiled down to a pencil sketch as news anchors report the limited facts available and then rehash them until another tiny nugget surfaces. And then you have the talking heads that are meant to provide nuance and perspective but usually just end up vehemently debating two extreme sides of a hot-button issue. Henry A. Grunwald, the late managing editor of Time magazine, summarized this catch-22 of the profession:
Journalism can never be silent: that is its greatest virtue and its greatest fault. It must speak, and speak immediately, while the echoes of wonder, the claims of triumph and the signs of horror are still in the air.
But with the benefit of 6 years of research and a whole lot of hindsight, Sheri Fink managed to give us the whole story at this one hospital with all the gray areas included, also offering the context of historical debates over palliative care and euthanasia, and even the somewhat ridiculous history of New Orleans disaster unpreparedness at every organizational level. And, yes, in a few places the background details did get a little dry, especially since I’m incapable of skimming.

But the more facts Fink throws at you, the more you realize how much you just didn’t know about this situation. For example, I was surprised to read that racial tensions still run so high in New Orleans that some of the white doctors at Memorial immediately feared that the surrounding black community would take advantage of the storm and attack the hospital, to loot it for drugs or just to express their resentment toward the hospital itself, which at one time had been affiliated with support for slavery, Jim Crow laws, and racial segregation. This fear of outside threats increased the sense of desperation inside and certainly contributed when it came time to make critical decisions. And that's the sort of thing outsiders like me might never take into account.

Nothing occurs in a vacuum, and the events at Memorial were affected by the city’s history, corporate politics, inadequate disaster preparedness plans, ongoing national debates centered on issues of medical ethics, a post-storm environment that many likened to a war zone, and the personal biases and opinions of nurses and doctors (because humans). Memorial wasn’t even an isolated case. Numerous other hospitals and nursing homes also came under scrutiny for negligence and malpractice during the storm.

For all these reasons, this isn’t just one of the best and most thorough investigative journalism pieces ever crafted; it's also the complete review of evidence that the actual criminal trial never conducted for reasons that still don't make a whole lot of sense. And that means this book is the closest thing to public accountability that the medical professionals wielding syringes at Memorial on September 1, 2005, will ever have to face. And it's the closest thing to justice the families of the dead will ever get.

It's not perfect, but it can be pre-tty sexy.


  1. This was such a monumental book. Definitely the best and most impressive non-fiction I read last year. And it's making its way around a few of the award circuits, so I feel happy about that.

  2. Man I remember watching on in horror when all of the Katrina stuff unfolded and I imagine the Aus press garbled through the limited info even more so since we didn't have a baseline of understanding/knowledge to at least build on. This sounds like a hell of a book, I'll definitely be keeping my eyes open for it.

  3. I don't know how I haven't read this yet. It sounds like such an incredible, important book!

  4. This sounds like an incredible but also difficult book to read. And one I think I need to get to soon

  5. Louisiana sometimes feels like another country to ME, so I can only imagine what your perspective on all this might be.

  6. IT IS incredible and important. Definitely worth reading.

  7. There were definitely a lot of times when I picked up Clash of Kings instead of reading farther into this book, because it sort of makes your brain tired. But then I binge-read the last 300 pages, and I'm not sorry I did.

  8. I sometimes tried to imagine what it would be like writing this kind of book, but I couldn't get very far before I started breaking out in hives.