September 2013

Desperate choices

By Sheri Fink
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If you had to decide whether a person should live or die, what would you do? This is the central theme of Five Days at Memorial, a gripping account of how doctors, nurses and their patients at one New Orleans hospital endured unbearable conditions after Hurricane Katrina struck in August 2005. Flooding, loss of electricity, sweltering heat, dwindling medical supplies and anarchy in the streets were among the issues confronting doctors and nurses at Memorial Medical Center. The situation eventually deteriorated far enough that some hospital workers were placed in the unenviable position of deciding whether to let critically ill patients suffer, or hasten their deaths. They chose to administer morphine and other drugs, ending the lives of at least 18 patients.

Five Days at Memorial chronicles the events leading up to these deaths, and the ensuing criminal investigation and trial of those deemed responsible. In the five days after the hurricane devastated the city, the hospital’s power failed, as did its generators. The lack of air conditioning added to patients’ suffering. Delays on the part of the corporation that owned the hospital slowed an evacuation, as did confusion among the various local, state and federal agencies trying to manage the crisis. So there lay the severely ill, without medication or hope of rescue. For some doctors and nurses, euthanasia seemed the only choice.

The original story that became Five Days at Memorial was co-published in the New York Times and ProPublica, and won a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting. Journalist Sheri Fink is a dogged researcher, a thorough interviewer and a gifted writer who turns nonfiction into lively prose. The characters she writes about are real, but their unbelievable circumstances make the book read like a work of fiction.

Readers will come away with a greater understanding of the difficult circumstances residents of New Orleans faced during Katrina, and will also confront important moral and ethical questions. Fink asks us to consider: If we had been there during those dark, desperate days at Memorial, would we have made a different choice?

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