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'Five Days' Of Ambiguous Morality At Katrina-Hit Hospital
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'Five Days' Of Ambiguous Morality At Katrina-Hit Hospital

Book Reviews


Eight years ago this week, the nation was still struggling to comprehend the devastation Hurricane Katrina had caused: scores of displaced people, entire neighborhoods wiped out. The scale of the destruction was shocking. In a new book, author Sheri Fink documents the destruction in a microcosm affected by the storm. She tells the story of what happened at one New Orleans hospital. Author Susan Gilman has this review of Fink's book, "Five Days at Memorial."

SUSAN JANE GILMAN: The windows at New Orleans Memorial Medical Center shattered, but the facility itself remained functional. The staff exhaled - "Wow, we dodged a bullet," they said. Then the levies broke. As floodwaters poured into the streets, the building was plunged into darkness. Life-support systems shut down; temperatures rose; food and medicine dwindled. Tenet, the corporation that owned the hospital, had no evacuation plan. Hospital staff repeatedly sent them desperate emails: We need patients out of here now. Please, can you take patients? Is anyone out there?

When the answer finally came, it read: Getting into the city is not going to happen. Have you contacted the National Guard? Tenet's corporate negligence, Fink suggests, bordered on criminal. Some staffers became convinced that the most critical patients would not survive. One of these believers was Dr. John Thiele. Fink writes: Thiele had no time to provide what he considered appropriate end-of-life care. He could not justify hanging a morphine drip and praying it didn't run out.

And so Dr. Thiele assisted another doctor, Anna Pou, and several nurses; doing what they believed was the only ethical thing left. They injected the most critically ill patients with lethal doses of morphine and sedative. Eleven months later, Dr. Pou and two of the nurses were arrested. The public was largely outraged over the arrests. And in 2007, a grand jury agreed.

But "Five Days at Memorial" is more nuanced in its judgment. Fink describes not only the exhausted, dedicated medical staff but also the once-vibrant and beloved patients who died in their care. Yet she refuses to weave all threads of her story into one, neat polemic. "Five Days at Memorial" may be fair and balanced to a fault for ultimately, it provokes more debate than it answers. The book is neither definitive nor palliative. Perhaps, Fink is suggesting, nothing is - or should be.

LYDEN: The book is called "Five Days at Memorial," by Sheri Fink. Our reviewer is Susan Jane Gilman.


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