Monday, October 7, 2013

"Five Days at Memorial" by Sheri Fink (2013)

No other natural disaster in my lifetime has made such an impression upon the public as the events at Memorial Hospital in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina in August of 2005, when, for 5 days and nights, people died and pandemonium ruled at Memorial Hospital.

In many ways Katrina was the perfect storm, in that it exposed many of the weaknesses and laid bare the complacency which has overtaken us as a society. The ignored warnings, the slipshod planning, the sheer waste of all imaginable resources; school buses being left to rot under water when there weren't enough vehicles to get everyone out; all combine with the predicament at Memorial Hospital, where patients were being given lethal injections of morphine without their knowledge, or consent.

If that last paragraph seems sprawling and slightly manic there is reason for it. That’s the way it was in New Orleans at the time, and that’s the way the book presents itself. With a very deft hand, Ms. Fink has drawn a gripping narrative of the approaching storm, its impact and the aftermath.

In the end, more questions were raised by the 4 days of Katrina than answered in the 8 years since the event. Although recent disaster relief efforts in New York City and elsewhere have shown improvement there is still much to be learned from the lessons of New Orleans.

Culled from 6 years’ worth of researching just about every available document on the subject, the author has left nothing out as she tells the story of the events which spiraled way out of control along with the storm. Carefully looking at each of the key players in the hospital itself, the author also presents a bit of the social history which contributed to the chaos and confusion in Memorial Hospital for those 5 days.

During that time, a doctor named Anna Pou initiated the killing by morphine overdose of over 2 dozen patients, some of whom were merely awaiting routine surgery. By the year after Katrina, in 2006, Louisiana’s Attorney General had Dr. Pou arrested, along with two nurses who had assisted her. The case was never tried and all charges were dismissed. In addition, the state was required to pay the legal fees of the former defendants, and the charges were expunged.

The subject of Euthanasia is, of necessity, explored here as well. Beginning with King Saul and his exploits in the Old Testament, where he is wounded and asks to be killed; a request which is denied to him and leads to the execution of the man who denied it; before moving on to the teachings and interpretations of Hippocrates; and then exploring the actions of Bonaparte’s army during the Plague; as well as the teachings of Margaret Read; the author explores the dual questions of just when it is okay to take a life; and for what reasons?

This was a difficult book to read, as it touches upon so many questions we all ask, but often never give utterance to. It is also, in some ways, an indictment of ourselves and the complacency which we are all guilty of. That complacency and the attendant lack of individual responsibility all helped to contribute to the situation in New Orleans. In turn, that situation led to the bizarre killings at Memorial Hospital by the very people who were trained to protect and save lives. This is a remarkable book which will affect the reader for some time to come.

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