Title: Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital
Author: Sheri Fink
Genre: Narrative nonfiction
Acquired: From the publisher for review consideration
Review: I have to admit, I didn’t (and still don’t) know a lot about what happened in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. I knew that the levees breaking after the storm caused more damage than the storm itself, and I knew that it took a long time to rescue people who were trapped in the city, but I had no idea the extent of the damage or the horrendous conditions that residents faced. Those facts alone were sobering, and a rather embarrassing indictment of my own news consumption habits.
Trying to make up for my own ignorance was one of the reasons why I picked up Five Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink. The book also fits right into the niche of investigative journalism that I love to read, so I was both excited and apprehensive to pick up the book, which looks at what happened at a hospital in New Orleans in the days after the hurricane:
After Katrina struck and the floodwaters rose, the power failed, and the heat climbed, exhausted caregivers chose to designate certain patients last for rescue. Months later, several health professionals faced criminal allegations that they deliberately injected numerous patients with drugs to hasten their deaths. Five Days at Memorial, the culmination of six years of reporting, unspools the mystery of what happened in those days, bringing the reader into a hospital fighting for its life and into a conversation about the most terrifying form of health care rationing.
Unexpectedly, fellow book blogger Florinda (The 3Rs Blog) and I finished this book at about the same time. We sent a few e-mails back and forth about it, so many of my comments are inspired by her questions and our conversations. You should also check out her review, which is pretty excellent too.
One of the things that frustrated me about the book, but also one of the things that made it a very strong piece of journalistic nonfiction, is the way that Fink resisted speculating about some of what happened at Memorial. For example, in some scenes she would specifically mention the people who were involved. In others, she’d only say “a nurse” or “a doctor,” I assume because she couldn’t verify with anyone in the room who exactly was there.
That’s good, responsible journalism, but also sort of aggravating because it leaves a level of blurring about what actually happened in the hospital. I’d love to sit down with her over a bottle of wine and find out what she really thought about happened after her investigation. As a journalist and a doctor, I am certain she has opinions — but those opinions are kept effectively out of the narrative.
That said, one of the things that struck me about the book is the way Fink quietly implicates people outside of the hospital for how much of this situation went down. The private corporation that owned Memorial was in contact with people inside the hospital shortly after the storm and knew they needed help. But rather than invest their own resources, they chose to rely on the government-supported response until several days later when it became clear there wasn’t a coordinated government rescue coming. You have to wonder if the outcomes at Memorial would have been different if corporate officials had responded differently.
One thing Florinda pointed out that I think is especially smart is that the story of Memorial, although specific and catastrophic, is also representative of many current health care debates — access, economics and complicated decisions about treatment. While what happened at Memorial is extreme, the same decisions get made in other hospitals and other places with different levels of scrutiny.
The book leaves a lot of questions open for interpretation. I’m not sure (and I’m not sure anyone is sure) if what happened was criminal, morally reprehensible, or just the awful result of having to make difficult decisions in the middle of increasingly more terrible conditions. Five Days at Memorial was a difficult, important book that offers many difficult issues to ponder.
P.S. If the length of the book is a little intimidating, you can get much of this story from Fink’s 2010 investigation that won her a Pulitzer Prize. That post includes several great multimedia additions, as well as links to follow up stories about what happened at Memorial.
If you have reviewed this book, please leave a link to the review in the comments and I will add your review to the main post. All I ask is for you to do the same to mine — thanks!