Five Days at Memorial or How Not to Act in a Crisis

Five Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink

BOTTOM LINE: A captivating and disturbing account of how the lack of preparation and a breakdown in communication impacts lives in times of crisis.

Genre: Nonfiction
Publication Date: 17 September 2013
Source: Mine. All mine.

Synopsis from the Publisher:

“Pulitzer Prize winner Sheri Fink’s landmark investigation of patient deaths at a New Orleans hospital ravaged by Hurricane Katrina – and her suspenseful portrayal of the quest for truth and justice.

In the tradition of the best investigative journalism, physician and reporter Sheri Fink reconstructs 5 days at Memorial Medical Center and draws the reader into the lives of those who struggled mightily to survive and to maintain life amid chaos.

After Katrina struck and the floodwaters rose, the power failed, and the heat climbed, exhausted caregivers chose to designate certain patients last for rescue. Months later, several health professionals faced criminal allegations that they deliberately injected numerous patients with drugs to hasten their deaths.

Five Days at Memorial, the culmination of six years of reporting, unspools the mystery of what happened in those days, bringing the reader into a hospital fighting for its life and into a conversation about the most terrifying form of health care rationing.

In a voice at once involving and fair, masterful and intimate, Fink exposes the hidden dilemmas of end-of-life care and reveals just how ill-prepared we are in America for the impact of large-scale disasters—and how we can do better. A remarkable book, engrossing from start to finish, Five Days at Memorial radically transforms your understanding of human nature in crisis.”

My Thoughts: Five Days at Memorial is the story of what happened in one hospital in New Orleans during and after Hurricane Katrina made landfall in August 2005. Ms. Fink covers the hospital’s history, its performance during previous historic hurricanes, and its preparedness as well as the actual events once Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. It is a tale of human perseverance and desperation as well as a warning tale about the need for detailed preparations for catastrophes.

I loved Five Days at Memorial and hated it at the same time. Ms. Fink does an amazing job capturing the drama and the plethora of emotions occurring within Memorial during those five days. Her research is far-reaching and thorough, and she presents her findings with minimal bias. The events of those five days are filled with drama and ingenuity, the highest of highs and the absolute lowest of lows. Ms. Fink does an excellent job in attempting to place readers into the heart of the action complete with visceral descriptions of horrid, unsanitary conditions. The story of Memorial Hospital during and after Katrina makes for a modern-day horror story that is difficult to stop reading.

The problem is that the story of what occurred within the hospital is one that should have never happened, and that’s where the hate steps into the mix. The lack of preparation on the part of the hospital, the inability to effectively communicate, the lack of clear leadership and chain of command, and even the failure to follow normal triage practices are baffling. Post-9/11 life demands emergency plans for the most extreme situations just in case they become reality. Memorial Hospital did not have a good emergency plans. The breakdown in communication and no chain of command made things even worse by ensuring that instructions contradicted other instructions and rumors ran rampant. In situations like these, the madmen are running the mental hospital, ensuring the breakdown in logic and order. What makes the situation in Memorial worse is the fact that there were nearby hospitals who were experiencing almost the exact same conditions, but they never let chaos rule the day. These hospitals kept the focus on their patients and their patients’ needs and did what they had to do to keep them alive until all were rescued. Two hospitals, similar preparedness, same scenario but a completely different end result. It only adds fuel to the argument that what happened in Memorial was avoidable with just a bit more leadership and organization.

As for the end-of-life care/euthanasia debacle, Ms. Fink tries to remove any bias in her presentation of the facts as told to her by those who were there. She does not set out to make Dr. Pou a villain; in fact, by including a side story about one of her patients and the career path that brought her to Memorial Hospital, she attempts to present a woman who cares deeply for her patients and for her profession. However, to me, I see Dr. Pou as the worst kind of narcissist, one who believes the initials after her name give her rights over the life or death of anyone and exempts her from repercussions. She takes care of her patients so that they can idolize her, fueling her narcissism. I was not a fan of Dr. Pou when she was first introduced, and her later actions confirm my opinions.

Five Days at Memorial is the type of book you want to read with a group because you will have so many opinions and so many questions you want to discuss; to read it in isolation is a challenge. In addition, the book itself is a challenge of everything you thought you knew about the medical profession and will make you think twice about going to a hospital if ill. It makes you question your views on euthanasia and end-of-life care as well, a hotly contested topic throughout the country. However, it is a book that needs to be read so that everyone understands what can happen when there is a breakdown in order and communication and no emergency plans. It needs to be read so that you can take the steps now to protect yourself and your wishes should you become to sick to express them. It needs to be read so that what happened during those Five Days at Memorial never happens again.

8 Responses to Five Days at Memorial or How Not to Act in a Crisis
  1. Andi
    April 19, 2017 | 10:21 AM

    So much yes. I want to read this one even though it is going to piss me all the way off.

    • Michelle
      April 20, 2017 | 12:16 PM

      It will most definitely piss you off, but I totally want to discuss the book with you!

  2. Ti
    April 20, 2017 | 1:52 PM

    We read this for book club and I could not believe that this happened and that it got so bad in just a few days time. I was like, how did I not here about this when it happened? It was such a trainwreck! The placement of the generators… the waste and how quickly it piled up. That part I believed because after the Northridge quake, in just a few hours people had no where go go. No running water means no toilet flushing. Hello! This even happened at work recently when a water main broke. 5 hours on a university campus with no toilet use. Ugh! They had to lock the bathroom doors.

    And the making people comfortable thing. Does that mean putting them out of their misery?? I mean, it’s not like it was the end of the world. Eventually they’d get help. Right? So much to talk about.

    • Michelle
      April 21, 2017 | 11:01 AM

      I get the horrible bathroom conditions. That is no joke. I agree though with the rest of it. It was five days and help was on the way. This was not a scenario where there was no chance of rescue. To devolve into that level of chaos after one day makes absolutely no sense to me.

      As for the end-of-life issues, that part angered me so much. What gall for that doctor to think she was doing the right thing! Not her choice to make IMO. I cannot believe that she was not convicted and that she is still practicing.

  3. Ti
    April 20, 2017 | 1:56 PM

    Geesh, I meant “hear” not here. Typing too fast.

    • Michelle
      April 21, 2017 | 11:02 AM

      I knew what you meant! And I agree. This seems like it should have been headline news. That whole disaster is a blur for me though, so I could have seen the headlines but not made the connection.

  4. Steph
    April 21, 2017 | 6:42 PM

    This does sound like a book that should be read with a discussion group. I’m not sure whether I want to read it, though. I am struggling with outrage fatigue just trying to keep up with current events. :-/ Great review!

    • Michelle
      April 24, 2017 | 10:40 AM


      I completely understand outrage fatigue. The only thing I can say is that at least the outrage is not political. The outrage this time is against the medical community and the hospital staff. It makes it a fresh type of outrage that is not so exhausting.

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