Review: Five Days at Memorial

Five Days at MemorialFive Days at Memorial
By Sheri Fink
(Crown, Hardcover, 9780307718969, September 2013, 576pp.)

The Short of It:

A nearly impossible to believe account of what happened at Memorial Medical Center after the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

The Rest of It:

I don’t know what I was doing when Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005 but let me tell you, I had no idea that any of the accounts in this book took place. Fink provides a detailed account of the five days immediately following Hurricane Katrina and the devastation that affected Memorial Medical Center. I will provide some highlights:

  • The lack of power was a problem, as was the lack of fuel for the emergency generators which happened to be below flood level.
  • Hospital staff was limited, and those that were there had their families and pets staying there with them.
  • No running water, meant no use of the facilities and the back-up of human waste was impossible to contain.
  • Many patients required life-saving assistance and without power, the care of said patients posed a problem.
  • Rescue was made by helicopter but getting patients to the helipad without elevators presented a huge challenge.
  • It was hot. SWAMPY hot and without AC or fans, some of the patients declined rapidly.

Did you read that last one? After five days, there were still patients in the building with no way to get them out. These were the most critical cases or in some cases, the most elderly. The staff was told that they MUST evacuate which meant leaving these patients behind. One doctor in particular, Dr. Anna Pou, made the choice to “make patients comfortable” by giving them what was essentially a lethal concoction of two medications to make them sleep…forever.

The first half of the book provides a detailed account of those five days and the second half covers the legal proceedings that followed. The first half was riveting, the second half, not so much and could have been shortened up, in my opinion. This was a hard book to digest for many reasons. The idea of a doctor deciding a person’s fate is alarming but don’t they do it all the time?

While reading, I found myself thinking “No! These people are bat-shit crazy!” but then a few pages later my opinion would change. In the back of my mind, I have convinced myself that something else could have been done, but these people were exhausted. Were they even capable of making such big decisions? No sleep. Limited food. Horrible conditions. I’m not sure.

My main problem with the book, and one that kept coming up for me over and over is that Fink didn’t appear to have an opinion of her own on the situation. She’s a journalist but she received her M.D. from Stanford so she must have a medical opinion on what took place. Right? If it was there, I didn’t read it.

I think anyone who works in the medical profession can learn something about disaster recovery by reading this book but really, anyone interested in disaster recovery can learn a lot from all of the mistakes made. The hospital and the administration and staff were not prepared for such a disaster. Simple things like outlet placement by windows, or the fact that the generators were in the basement below the flood plain, stuff like that.

This book was read for my book club and it was a lively discussion.

Source: Borrowed
Disclosure: This post contains Indiebound affiliate links.

15 thoughts on “Review: Five Days at Memorial”

  1. I have written about these kinds of situations for 10+ years. Disaster prep is a big issue for many industries, particularly hospitals. And what’s worse is that even after Katrina, the hospitals in NY/NJ where Hurricane Sandy hit were still ill-prepared and that was just in 2012! The generators were flooded, there floodwaters were high and evacuations were impossible….the only difference is that the flooding was not as prolonged. But still, given the 7 years between the two, you’d think that these places would have upgraded their disaster and evacuation plans to be prepared.

    Anyway, what I’m saying is that this book would be a great book club discussion book and I’m interested, though I’m not sure journalists should express opinions since they really are supposed to report objectively….then again, journalists are always offering their opinions these days.

    1. You are absolutely right about Sandy. They didn’t seem to learn much since Katrina but isn’t that what we’ve come to expect from administration? I am always pleasantly surprised when someone does something proactively.


    1. While reading it’s it’s hard to believe that they were stranded for only 5 days. It seemed like an eternity but I remember when I was stranded for a day without a place to live after the Northridge quake and THAT seemed like an eternity and having no restroom facilities made it seem like days.


  2. I was absolutely spellbound and horrified by this book. I guess it didn’t really bother me that the author didn’t express an opinion, I would prefer if they present the facts and let the reader draw their own conclusions. No easy answers here, and I especially was riveted by the whole right to die topic they discussed at the end. Living in the heart of hurricane territory, I made a mental note to check the weather forecast before I step toe one into a hospital.

    1. I don’t know why they didn’t utilize boats more than they did. I know there was a crime aspect and that people feared for their safety so I am sure that played a role. Also, that superdome issue and the fact that people were practically starving there when it was supposed to be the safe zone.


  3. Sounds like a frustrating read to hear about all these fatal errors etc. And that there was no opinion in it. Did you want to throw it against a wall?

  4. Interesting. I saw this get a lot of buzz when it first was published, but I ignored it as yet another book about the cluster that was Katrina. I think I made a mistake there. You now have me wanting to read this one immediately. Or very, very soon.

  5. I’ve been wanting to get to this book for some time but knowing how hard it’s going to be to read has held me back. Maybe I should put it on my book club’s list to force myself because I know it’s one I should definitely read.

    1. It did make an excellent club book. So much to discuss and the concersation at times got a little heated since we had retired medical professionals to add to the conversation.


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