Wednesday, June 25, 2014

What we're reading: Recent history

Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm Ravaged Hospital, by investigative reporter Sheri Fink, recounts the events that took place at Memorial Hospital in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. Based on her extensive research, she gives us a look at the heartrending life and death choices made by doctors, nurses, hospital executives, the military, and government officials. One doctor in particular, Anna Maria Pou, becomes the focus of much of the book, due to the actions she took during the storm and the later criminal investigation that resulted. It is the subject of debate whether she was providing comfort to patients in their last agonizing moments in a hospital without electricity, or euthanizing them unnecessarily when evacuations were finally getting underway. However, as Fink points out, other doctors took similar actions but were lucky enough to escape the eye of the District Attorney.

The book is incredibly thought-provoking. One section delves into the history of triage – how do we determine who gets medical attention and access to resources first or last during an emergency? Is it the person with the most life-threatening injuries, or the person with the greatest potential for recovery and longevity? Or do we help those with the least-serious injuries first, in order to get them back into action and helping others? And of course the main issue the book deals with is euthanasia and if the same moral principles apply during a disaster as in everyday life. Is it ever okay to administer pain-dulling, life-ending medication to those in agony even if they didn’t ask for it? How do we decide who is truly beyond saving? The doctors and nurses at Memorial had to answer these questions in the midst of one of the worst natural disasters in recent history. Some were working with more information than others. Rumors were swirling that New Orleans was under martial law, that looters were trying were trying to get into the hospital, and that evacuations were being stopped.

The book is well written, but it was hard to keep track of the countless “characters.” Fink interviewed so many people that we get the same event remembered in many different ways, which made it hard to decipher what really happened. Who was telling the truth and who was downplaying their involvement? I suppose she was just doing the work of a good reporter. The resulting criminal investigation of Dr. Pou and the two nurses who allegedly helped her inject patients with deadly drugs played out like a crime novel and brought up even more issues, such as corruption in the New Orleans Attorney General’s office, and the questionable conclusions of the parish coroner. This was not a light summer read, but definitely recommended for those who are interested in grappling with tough questions and gaining more insight into what went on during those chaotic days of Hurricane Katrina.

Reviewed by Laura M., reference librarian

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