Review: Five Days at Memorial

Where were you at the end of August, 2005?  Chances are, most people couldn’t say with any degree of accuracy.  But for those in the path of one of the worst natural disasters of all time, that date is indelibly etched in their psyche just as surely as other notable dates in history.  For those involved, time can be divided into two eras:  before Katrina and after Katrina.

Five Days at Memorial delves into the unimaginable conditions immediately before and after the tragedy at one of New Orleans’ largest hospitals that ultimately led to the deaths of a larger than expected number of patients.  Rumors began to circulate that certain patients deemed “disposable” had been purposely euthanized by medical professionals to avoid the trouble of moving them when rescue finally arrived.

Sheri Fink walks us through attempts by authorities to charge and convict those deemed to be in charge of the situation.  But really, was anybody in charge at that time?  Certainly not the state or federal government whose blunders are clearly documented in this book.  Miscommunication by all involved, lack of planning, bureaucratic red tape, and plausible corporate deniability  all led to a chain of events that had lasting repercussions for everyone regardless of the legal outcomes.

The author poses both medical and ethical questions regarding “humane intervention” when someone is critically ill.  If we can provide humane and compassionate end of life decisions for our pets then why not human beings? However, the bigger question for me as the reader was, who gets to make this decision? How much of a life is worth saving? I’m not sure if there is a black and white answer to this.  New Orleans was basically cut off from America for several days during that period.  Most of us cannot even begin to imagine the conditions inside that hospital and throughout the region. As I read this book I felt the panic and heartbreak of all involved as they tried to simply survive.

Seven years after Hurricane Katrina the region is still recovering.  On the outside everything looks shiny and new.  Memorial Medical Center narrowly escaped demolition and was sold a few years after the disaster after undergoing extensive renovations and was reopened under a new name.  Many of the people involved in the euthanasia controversy have moved on while others have not for various reasons.  If anything positive resulted from this horrible situation, I would hope that lessons were learned to prevent such a tragedy from happening again.  Only time will tell.


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