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Lifestyle

September 15, 2013

'Five Days at Memorial' raises haunting questions

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

c.2013, Crown, $27, 558 pages

You know what you’d do in a crisis – or do you? Could you ignore your inner voice and do something wrong, that seems right? That’s what allegedly happens in the new book “Five Days at Memorial” by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Sheri Fink: one of our country’s worst disasters may have led to one of medicine’s most questionable acts.

When Southern Baptist Hospital opened in New Orleans in 1926, its founders hoped it would be “the greatest hospital in all the Southland.” Indeed, it had the sturdiest of buildings: when Hurricane Betsy hit in 1965, the campus barely blinked. There was no reason, therefore, to believe that the hospital (renamed Memorial Medical Center the mid-1990s) couldn’t withstand Hurricane Katrina.

As Katrina approached land on August 28, 2005, there were as many as 2,000 people at Memorial, including staff and families, 183 Memorial patients, and 55 patients belonging to LifeCare, a “hospital within a hospital” that rented facilities at Memorial. There were also hundreds of staff-owned pets inside, for safety’s sake.

At first, the atmosphere was light-hearted. It was obvious by the “little shimmy shake” of the floor-to-ceiling windows and the devastation outside that the storm was dangerous, but staff was optimistic.

And then the levee broke. Water poured into the building, the hospital’s generators became waterlogged, air conditioning failed, and the temperature skyrocketed inside. Plumbing shut down, and fetid odors wafted through each floor. Evacuations were denied (or sporadic), whispers of “martial law” circulated, and optimism waned as the sickest patients became dehydrated, overheated, delirious. Nurses scrambled to keep people alive in conditions that deteriorated almost by the minute.

When it became obvious that pets would not be evacuated, some staff tearfully requested that beloved companions be euthanized. A few nurses wondered if they would ever leave Memorial alive.

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