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

How sad do you want to feel?

We need good investigative reporting. As we listen to television pundits blather on and on about absolute heroes and villains, we forget sometimes that human beings are nuanced and complicated. For instance, you’d think that doctors who euthanized sick patients without their knowledge or consent would be bad guys. Full stop. No gray area. But the truth is a little more difficult.

On Aug. 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina made landfall as a Category 3 storm. Doctors and nurses at Memorial Hospital hunkered down inside, expecting the worst. But the storm passed, leaving them relatively unscathed. “Wow.” one remembers thinking, “We sure dodged a bullet.”

Then the levees broke and water poured into Memorial’s basement, where the generators were located. The power went out. Life support systems shut down. Water and food was running low. Temperatures were rising. There was no plan for this kind of disaster. Gunshots were heard outside, and there was a fear gangs would storm the hospital and steal the drugs.

Some of the staffers became convinced their sickest patients wouldn’t last the night. So a couple of doctors and nurses injected them with an overdose of morphine and other drugs, telling the sick they were going to “make them feel better.”

The first half of the story reads like an apocalyptic horror story. The second half, set about a year after Katrina, is more like a legal drama. One doctor and two nurses are charged with second-degree murder.  The book follows them as they try to come to terms with what happened and the investigators trying to put them behind bars. It’s weird to call what happens next a spoiler considering it’s (unfortunately) nonfiction, but I still won’t say what happens next.

I found myself switching allegiances throughout the book. At some points I completely sided with the doctor and nurses. At other times I was against them. I made it about 400 pages before it occurred to me that I didn’t have to pick a side. The doctors were right and they were also wrong.

Fink takes a nuanced approach with everyone in the book. She doesn’t just focus on the determined, exhausted and frightened medical staff at Memorial. She takes time to introduce us to the patients who died, spelling out that these were vibrant and loved individuals who deserved better than what they got.

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