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Review: ‘Five Days at Memorial’ by Sheri Fink

Review: ‘Five Days at Memorial’ by Sheri Fink post image

Title: Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital
Author: Sheri Fink
Genre: Narrative nonfiction
Year: 2013
Publisher: Crown
Acquired: From the publisher for review consideration
Rating: ★★★★½

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.

Other Reviews: S. Krishna’s Books | Love at First Book | River City Reading |

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!

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Shannon @ River City Reading November 8, 2013, 5:18 am

    Like you, I really wished I could get inside Fink’s head a little, because she has to fall a little more clearly on one side or the other, but was really impressed by how balanced her reporting was in this book.

    Thanks for sharing my review!

  • bermudaonion (Kathy) November 8, 2013, 7:03 am

    This book is getting a lot of buzz but I figured it didn’t have anything new to add to the Katrina story. It sounds like I was wrong.

    • Kim November 10, 2013, 2:57 pm

      That’s a tough call — depends how much you know already? I think what happened at Memorial got some pretty big press coverage thanks to the ProPublica story, but this expands on that story and goes more into the aftermath, I think.

  • Andi @ Estella's Revenge November 8, 2013, 8:57 am

    This one is definitely on my want list. I was captivated and horrified by all of the news stories after Katrina, and to be able to read a cohesive take would be great.

  • Swapna November 8, 2013, 9:08 am

    Great review. I agree with you that I appreciate she didn’t speculate, but at the same time, that created some vagueness that was frustrating. I loved this book for its portrayal of Katrina; I too didn’t really understand the horrors of what happened!

  • Rebecca @ Love at First Book November 8, 2013, 9:15 am

    I had some of the same thoughts with the book. Like Sheri Fink was being the best journalist she could be by stating the facts, what she could prove. It’s interesting, though, since she doesn’t fully state that euthanasia was used.

    I think that part of what she does by comparing the other hospitals’ techniques during tragedies such as Katrina and Sandy show that she at least feels strongly that this could have been prevented.

    Thanks for highlighting my review, Kim! I think yours is super awesome and in depth!!!!

    • Kim November 10, 2013, 2:58 pm

      I really loved the parts about other hospitals — it gave a lot of needed context to what was happening at Memorial. When you see that there were other options, it makes the Memorial situation even more difficult to accept.

  • Sandy November 8, 2013, 9:38 am

    I do like to read these types of books because they open your mind, your eyes, and make you think (and often they really get me riled up). I think that even if you were glued to the TV in those days and weeks after Katrina, you still wouldn’t have the whole, true story. So much of the facts were skewed for political purposes. Have you seen the documentary Trouble the Waters? Pretty horrible stuff.

    • Kim November 10, 2013, 2:58 pm

      I haven’t seen that documentary, but since reading the book I’ve been curious about other Katrina stories to read. I’ll have to look for that one!

  • Diane@BibliophilebytheSea November 8, 2013, 8:18 pm

    I initially passed on this one, but now has put my name on the hold list for an audio version from my library. Glad you reviewed it for us.

  • Vasilly November 9, 2013, 11:47 am

    I just returned this book unread back to the library. I probably need to buy my own copy.Thanks for reviewing this book.

  • Sheila (Book JOurney) November 10, 2013, 12:44 pm

    Sounds like a must read. We have had teams in the area go to assist (even as late as last spring) with repairs that are still happening due to Katrina. I have never been part of the teams going due to work and life commitments but I wish I could go.

    • Kim November 10, 2013, 2:59 pm

      It’s just astounding that even this much later they are still having such a hard time recovering. I want to learn more about that.

  • Florinda November 10, 2013, 2:46 pm

    I just updated my review post to link back to yours. I’m glad we (spontaneously!) read this one at the same time, and were able to talk about it before writing about it.

  • Care November 10, 2013, 5:54 pm

    You haven’t read Zeitoun? The prison side of that catastrophe brings up similar questions of morality and ethics.

    • Kim November 17, 2013, 2:58 pm

      No, I haven’t read that one. I have it, but it’s still in TBR purgatory.

  • Stacy November 12, 2013, 12:35 pm

    I’m on the waiting list for this at the library, but your review is making it hard for me to wait! You should definitely read Dan Baum’s Nine Lives for a look at some very interesting New Orleans residents and their lives before and after Katrina.

  • Jenny @ Reading the End November 13, 2013, 7:30 pm

    It’s dumb, but my skin crawls even just thinking of reading a book about the aftermath of Katrina. (Standard disclaimer: Absolutely nothing happened to me during Katrina and I don’t know why I’m such a baby about remembering it.) I feel like I OUGHT to read this, and I’m sure I’d find it interesting and admire the journalism. I just can’t.

    • Kim November 17, 2013, 2:59 pm

      I think we all feel that way about some event. I still have an impossibly hard time with 9/11 books — some of them work and some of them just make me want to curl up on a ball.

  • Renz Sacon February 18, 2014, 5:59 am

    Hi Kim:

    The review you posted for Five Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink read to me like you demonstrated impartiality and insight. You stated your thought the way you should. I appreciate that you show both fairness and balance in your reviews. I will be following your other reviews with interest.