5 Days at Memorial

9780307718969_p0_v4_s260x420Hurricane Katrina is one event that I think will be in my memory forever.  As one of the nation’s worst natural disasters, what happened after the storm was just as memorable as the storm itself.  There was looting, flooding, people and pets stranded on the roofs of their homes.  One of the most shocking stories to emerge from post-Katrina New Orleans was what happened at Memorial Medical Center.  Sheri Fink wrote 5 Days at Memorial, based on the investigation into the claims that patients had been euthanized at the hospital.  What happened at Memorial was shocking – and yet somewhat understandable.  At the center of the story was Dr Anna Maria Pou, an experienced doctor who felt her options were increasingly limited in one of the toughest challenges she experienced in her medical career.

One of her primary roles at the hospital was to care for hospice patients (or those patients who were waiting to be transferred to a hospice). The storm hit on August 28th, 2005.  One thing that impacted the whole city is what they were going to do with the city’s residents when an evacuation was ordered.  This was one of the biggest criticisms of how the city handled the storm, yet how was the hospital to move critical patients?  Susan Mulderick was the hospital’s incident commander, and had worked at the hospital for years.  She, along with many other hospital employees, had family members (and pets) staying at the hospital throughout the storm and the days that followed.  It was the day after the storm that the hospital lost power.  That’s when the real panic set in.

The book follows the storm’s aftermath sequentially.  Though the hospital was already struggling to meet the demands of the patients they already had, there were more patients coming into the ER.  Day 3 was the day that the Coast Guard began to evacuate patients.  There were infants afrom the NICU evacuated, but the Guard rescuers didn’t prioritize some of the hospital’s older patients.  Flooding began in the early afternoon, making it even more difficult for patients to be saved from the hospital.  The most critically ill patients were also the most difficult to evacuate, but doctors, nurses, and especially family members felt they were worth saving.

Fresh, cold, clean water was becoming scarce.  To preserve electricity – AC was at a minimum, and in certain areas it had been off for a while.  Day 4 was a Wednesday, and conditions were becoming unbearable.  This was August in New Orleans – hot, humid, the hospital was overcrowded, smelly and desperate.  There were still evacuations going on – by boat, as part of the first floor and basement had flooded.  Family members were struggling with what to do with critically ill patients, many felt that their loved ones would not survive.  Many doctors believed it too.  Day 5 began the practice of just giving patients to provide comfort.  This is when the idea of “euthanizing patients” originated.

In no way can I justify what these doctors did, but in reading a day by day account of what transpired in this hospital I get a better sense of their situation.  These stories made it to the press quickly, and an investigation began on day 5.  Investigators came in from Baton Rouge, and the claim “From an act of God to playing God” was made.  The Times-Picayune team that wrote a series about the storm’s aftermath won a Pulitzer.  This story is very compelling, and the book really surprised me.  I started reading the book with my mind already made up about what happened at the hospital.  This didn’t really change my opinion – but I loved the way Fink told the story.  She was objective – not condemning them, not justifying their actions.

There’s a site that’s dedicated to what some claim to be the real story of what transpired at Memorial.  Many at the hospital disagree with Fink’s account in the book.  The truth may never be uncovered – you can read the book and decide for yourself!

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