Five Days At Memorial : Life And Death In A Storm-Ravaged Hospital / Sheri Fink

On Sunday, August 28, 2005, Katrina, a Category Five hurricane came ashore near the city of New Orleans. While an evacuation order was issued shortly before Katrina hit, most of the city’s poor had no means to escape the fury of the storm. Hospitals were exempt from the evacuation order, and Sheri Fink takes the reader inside Memorial Medical Center to reconstruct the events of the five days following the hurricane when the facility was, for the most part, cut off from the rest of the world. The hospital was damaged by Katrina, but fully functional on the morning after. But later that day, the floodwaters rose, the power failed, and the heat within Memorial rapidly climbed. In this blow-by-blow account, Fink reveals how chaos and lack of proper emergency planning in this facility led an exhausted medical staff to begin to designate certain high-risk patients as “last for rescue”. She also contends that several healthcare professionals hastened numerous patients’ deaths by deliberating injecting a deadly cocktail of drugs. Before picking up Five Days, I was certain no such act had occurred. After reading her exposé, I reluctantly have to admit that something untoward had taken place at Memorial. But unlike Fink, I am not of the opinion that the healthcare professionals involved should have faced criminal charges. While the evidence she provides is solid, her bias of presumed guilt made me question whether all sides were fairly presented. The blame for the situation within the hospital can be assigned to a long list of culprits­­ –– from politicians, to FEMA, to Tenet, the chain owning Memorial. Blaming the misdeeds solely on the medical staff seems unfair and serves no good purpose. That said, by exposing the dilemmas associated with end-of-life care when disaster strikes, this book will generate a much-needed discussion in the healthcare industry regarding how to handle such events in the future. It clearly shows the importance for communities to have a flexible emergency plan in place to provide guidance when disaster strikes. I was struck by the fact that the hospital that fared best in the wake of Katrina was a charity care facility. Long accustomed to coping with limited resources, it found ingenious ways to keep most of its patients alive. Five Days is must reading for ethicists and anyone working in healthcare. But the public at large will also be captivated by Fink’s account of this hurricane-driven medical catastrophe. It is sure to spark a lively debate among book clubs across the country.

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