Saturday, October 5, 2013

Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital by Sheri Fink

Two things I learned from this book:
When nature turns on us, no amount of preparedness is enough.
When you lose air conditioning in a warm climate, civility goes out the window.

Five Days at Memorial is exactly that. It is about five days at Memorial Hospital in New Orleans, prior to, during and after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. This is a very sad story and a wake-up call for anyone who thinks they’d be okay in a storm of that magnitude. The answer is, no, you probably won’t. Why? Because as I said above, no matter how much hospitals practice emergency procedures, no matter how well-prepared the National Guard is, no matter how many times the Red Cross has served at natural disasters, each disaster presents a unique scenario for which there is no procedure.

At first it seems that Memorial Hospital is the place to be in a hurricane. Nurses and doctors bring in their families and pets and picnic baskets to “wait it out” in safety. They’d done it before. No big deal. But Katrina had other plans. 

The water soon got so high that the generators, illogically installed in the hospital basement, went out, and the hospital was without light, without air conditioning (imagine New Orleans in August without AC), without ventilators pumping oxygen into critically ill patients, without elevators in an eight-story building, without flushing commodes, and without drinking water.
(Photo is of Memorial Hospital during the flood)

When people started dying, they were moved into the chapel, and the heat spread the smell of decaying bodies throughout the hospital. When rescue helicopters tried to land on the top floor of the adjacent parking garage to rescue people from the hospital, there wasn’t a reasonable way to get the patients from the hospital to the helicopters. 

No one was in charge, and no one was communicating effectively from the outside to coordinate rescues. Every rescue effort was horribly overwhelmed and evacuations were needed all over the city. Families had no idea of the fate of their loved ones because there simply was no communication. People were asked to bring their boats to rescue people, but then they had to stop because of snipers and looters.

The protocol for evacuation was that the sickest went last, a policy that seemed both horribly right and wrong to me. Pets were euthanized because the rescue helicopters wouldn't transport animals. And then, one of the doctors makes the decision to euthanize eight patients she deems too ill to move, and one too overweight to move.

(Author, Sheri Fink pictured)  

When Katrina recedes and New Orleans gets to the business of cleaning up and bringing its city to life, the book changes completely. It stops being about the flood, and becomes about blame - who was responsible for what, and what to do about it. After years of investigation, and about 300 pages of he said, she said, in the end, no one is found culpable. Grand jurors looked beyond the acts of negligence, cowardliness and incompetence, and some characterized as "mercy killing" (the euthanized patients at Memorial) and blamed it on the weather.

I don’t know if they were right or wrong, but I do know that if I am ever in an emergency situation, I’d better not count on anyone but myself.

I recommend that you read Five Days at Memorial, if for no other reason than it will help you understand what happens when life as we know it comes to a screeching stop. But I also want to add that the second half of the book is repetitive, confusing and futile.

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