Friday, September 19, 2014

Comfort or Cold-Blooded Murder: What Really Happened at Memorial During Katrina's Aftermath?

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

As Hurricane Katrina barreled toward New Orleans in late August 2005, residents braced for impact.  Many headed for Memorial Medical Center, a sprawling hospital in the heart of the city that had, for generations, provided sturdy shelter through violent storms.  When the hurricane hit, around 2,000 people—including patients, doctors, nurses, other hospital employees, and their friends/family members (many of whom brought along pets)—sought safety inside its walls.  Although the hospital suffered some damage from the storm's initial battering, it continued to operate, surviving as it always had.

When floodwater began to rise, swamping the city and causing widespread panic both within the hospital and without, the staff at Memorial started to realize they may not be as safe as they had previously thought.  With complete power failure becoming increasingly likely, the evacuation of Memorial's nearly 200 patients become necessary.  Stranded people all over the area were in dire need of rescue.  With few vehicles available, hospital staff had to make some tough decisions:  Which patients should be evacuated first?  The tiny babies in the NICU?  The sickest adults?  The patients who were healthiest?  A decision that seemed simple at the time, but later became critical, was made: patients with Do Not Resuscitate orders would be taken out of the hospital last.  

Those in charge at Memorial believed the hospital would be emptied completely within a matter of hours.  This did not happen—and would not happen until September 11th, when coroners removed 45 corpses from Memorial's chapel.  What occurred to the more than 100 patients who remained after the hospital's initial evacuation during the five harrowing days between August 28, when the storm hit, and September 1, when all living patients were rescued from Memorial?  Why did so many people, more than at any other medical facility of comparable size, perish?  As the power died, causing the failure of lights, air conditioners, and life-saving medical equipment, conditions inside the hospital became unbearable, not just for patients but for the doctors and nurses who were rapidly losing hope in the promise of rescue.  With no end to anyone's misery in sight, those in charge at Memorial made a critical choice—to make suffering patients "comfortable."  Were those decisions merciful acts or cold-blooded murder? 

Five Days at Memorial, an epic work of investigative journalism by Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Sheri Fink, presents the chilling facts, allowing the reader to come to his/her own conclusions about what really happened at the hospital.  Well-balanced and exhaustively researched, it's a haunting account that asks important questions about disaster preparedness; medical ethics; end-of-life care; and the responsibility of doctors toward their patients, especially when under extreme stress with their own lives in danger.  At just under 600 pages, Five Days at Memorial looks intimidating, but it's actually very readable.  It didn't bore me in the least.  Eye-opening and thought-provoking, the book is an intense, compelling piece of non-fiction that should not be missed.  

For a shorter, but just as riveting account of the situation recounted in the book, click here to read "The Deadly Choices at Memorial," an article Fink published in The New York Times Magazine on August 25, 2007.  

(Readalikes:  Although Five Days at Memorial is different than anything else I've read about Hurricane Katrina, it does remind me of fictional accounts of the storm, like Ninth Ward by Jewell Parker Rhodes and Upside Down in the Middle of Nowhere by Julie T. Lamana)

Grade:  

If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for strong language, violence, and intense scenes/situations

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find

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