Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Five Days at Memorial, Sheri Fink

Category: Nonfiction: Medicine, Doctors, Hospitals, & Nursing; Investigative Reporting

Synopsis: A recounting of the five days following Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of New Orleans and its dire effects on Memorial Hospital.

Date finished: 7 July 2014

Rating: *****

There are some books that make me wish I was in a book club. Five Days at Memorial is such a book. When it came out, I had no interest in reading it. I don’t participate in traditional healthcare, and I tend to stay away from it as a book topic. But this book had garnered so much press, it wore down my defenses. Now I wish I’d have read it when it was the hot new book, so I could be a part of the discussion.

The book is divided into two parts. In part one, we meet the characters, the doctors and patients central to the story. We follow the hospital staff through the five harrowing days following Hurricane Katrina. Days without electricity, without air conditioning, without running water, and with the stench of flood waters, broken plumbing, and death. And we witness the haphazard rescues, at times staff sending rescuers away without a single patient aboard, at other times staff wondering where the rescues were. We learn of the decision to send out the least critical patients first, instead of the most critical. And we learn that someone made the decision to euthanize the last 19 (?) patients in order to exit the hospital on day five. The bodies were not discovered until weeks (?) after they were drugged and abandoned. In short, chaos, life, death, and fatal decisions. 

Part two of the book involves the investigation into the staff, specifically Dr. Anna Pou, who were involved in the euthanizing of the last Memorial patients. We learn of the lawsuits bought and the outcomes of the cases.

Fink flips between impartial reporter in part one and (I’d say) decidedly anti-staff in part two. It seems obvious that she wanted the doctors and nurses involved to pay a price for the decisions they made and be accountable to the families they devastated.

The book had me shaking my head a lot. How could a hospital in New Orleans, Louisiana, a hospital that had suffered a catastrophic flood decades before, not have a clear and detailed set of emergency procedures in place? How could they not have decided years in advance who would be saved first and how they would deal with their most critical patients? How could rescues not be planned out in detail with backup plans if an entire city was underwater or otherwise crippled? How could any rescue flight be turned away empty?

But the most troubling question, the question that’s hardest to answer, is did the doctors and nurses do the right thing in the last hours before abandoning the hospital? This question, of course, is at the heart of the matter, bringing into the discussion so many different threads: morality and ethics, the good of humanity, the role of healthcare, faith.

I am so glad I read this book, and I’m still at the mercy of the questions it raises. I highly recommend you read this book.

Would you recommend this to a friend?



  1. WOW Carrie. I've never heard of this book -- but it sounds absolutely riveting. Were the legal implications/trials/whatever discussed to any extent (that's the lawyer in me :) ) Sounds like it was a powerful read. I'm hopping over to my library website to see if they have it in time for Bout of Books. :)

    1. Oh, do check this one out. The legal aspect might appeal to you, but there isn't a LOT of that. There's no trial. But one of the parts I actually enjoyed the most (and didn't write about in my review) was the DA's investigation. I found that fascinating. It's a smart, thoughtful book, one that I think a deep thinker like you will get a lot out of.