Interview with Sheri Fink, author of 'Five Days At Memorial'
Sheri Fink, author of 'Five Days At Memorial,' talks about the five horrific days in 2005, during which hurricane Katrina and its aftermath kept healthcare workers and patients trapped in Memorial Hospital in New Orleans.
For five long days during and after hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in 2005, patients and medical workers were trapped in a nightmarish scenario in the city's Memorial Hospital. Then, as the floodwaters receded, a shocking story began to circulate – that at least 20 of Memorial’s most fragile patients had been euthanized as an emergency measure.Skip to next paragraph
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Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Sheri Fink, the author of the newly released Five Days At Memorial, recently spoke with Monitor Books editor Marjorie Kehe about the story and its implications for emergency workers everywhere. Here are excerpts of their conversation.
Q. What drew you to this story?
Before journalism, I had worked doing medical aid work in conflict zones. Then as a journalist I had written about hospitals in war zones. But I had never heard these types of allegations coming out of any of the places where I had worked.
So it drew my attention because I thought, whether or not this thing happened, the very fact that people who worked at the hospitals thought that it might have happened meant that something terrible had happened there. And having worked in many of these situations I also felt – and do feel – that disaster can strike anywhere, absolutely anywhere. And so there must be lessons for us. There must be some relevance for other people and other places.
Having worked in disasters, I have seen that, in those critical first few hours, those first few days – so much ends up riding on you and your neighbor and whoever is around. The official response always comes later and it always feels like it comes too slow.
Q. Why does it seem that the government, the hospital, and the hospital’s corporate parent were all so ill prepared for what – given geography and past experience – was not really that unlikely of a scenario?
I asked that same question after hurricane Sandy last year in New York City, when we saw very sick and vulnerable people being carried down staircases in the dark for days out of dozens of nursing homes and hospitals, which weren't evacuated in advance, because their backup power systems weren't protected against flooding. We don't know how many excess deaths occurred in the days and weeks after those stressful events, because the state of New York has so far kept data from the public and from researchers who wish to study the issue.
We need to know the stakes, the human costs, of failing to prepare. Only then can we make informed decisions about what is essentially another form of triage – how we balance the need to address everyday priorities against the need to invest in preparing for unlikely but foreseeable, catastrophic events. It is human nature to be short sighted and to lose momentum to make changes once the story is out of the headlines and there aren't financial incentives or political rewards. We owe to ourselves to learn from the past so we can try to do better.
Q. At a certain point the workers at Memorial Hospital seem to have felt utterly abandoned by the outside world, and this may have contributed to panic. Could this feeling have been prevented?
What [workers at Memorial] lacked was something that is very important in a disaster and that is situational awareness: the ability to see the larger picture. They became very helpless and very dejected. Communications weren’t good; [even] within the hospital, people weren’t sure when the next meeting would be. And then certainly the communications with the world outside the hospital were very spotty.
That’s one of the key things that I hope people will take away [from the book]. It’s so hard to maintain mental flexibility when you are tired and feeling hopeless and not having the use of the usual things that we’re so accustomed to. There are places in the world that, the power goes out in hospitals and there isn’t clean water and it’s horrific. It’s wonderful that we don’t usually have that situation here but it also makes it much harder for our health care professionals and all of us to cope with the situation when suddenly it does occur.