As New Orleans dug itself out of the mess left by Hurricane Katrina, Sheri Fink began digging into puzzling deaths at one of the city’s hospitals.
She won a Pulitzer Prize in 2010 for investigative reporting that has now grown into a book, “Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital.” It’s a marvel of journalistic effort that brings an objective and sympathetic eye to the suffering and tough decisions at Memorial Medical Center.
Densely detailed, “Five Days” asks you to absorb anguish, pain and serious ethical questions. It’s tough medicine, but it will do you good.
As Katrina drew near on Sunday, Aug. 28, 2005, Memorial and a separate long-term-treatment facility it housed called LifeCare held 1,800 to 2,000 people, including about 238 patients and 600 staff, plus family members, companions and neighborhood people who sought shelter in the hospital.
As electric power dropped, tap water stopped flowing and toilets backed up.
The medical staff focused on caring for and evacuating patients. The former grew increasingly difficult without power. By Wednesday, the patient census had dropped to about 182. The feeling grew among a few of the medical staff that “not all of the patients would be getting out alive.”
Traditional triage was reversed. To “help speed the evacuation,” patients were assigned numbers 1, 2 and 3, from healthiest to most ill, with the No. 1 group getting out first.
The idea of euthanizing patients was broached and rejected at various points. Eventually a doctor, Anna Pou, would lead the effort to try to make some patients “comfortable” with morphine and other drugs.
Whatever the intent, more than a week after the hospital’s last living patients were evacuated, rescue workers recovered 45 bodies, “the largest number of bodies found at any Katrina-struck hospital or nursing home.”
The book’s second half, covering the investigation of Pou and two other staff members, presents more of Fink’s fine detective work.
Fink is a trained physician who has worked in disaster relief and in conflict areas. Her restraint in the face of this charnel house is extraordinary. Still, it’s clear that natural causes probably weren’t involved in some of those deaths.