Sunday, September 29, 2013

Review: Five Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink

Summary (courtesy of Goodreads): 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.

And here's what I thought:  This book was a big mix of scary and fascinating.  The author, who did exhaustive research, writes the first half of the book, which focuses on the five days at the hospital like a tension-filled thriller.  As a reader, you feel like you don't want to keep reading .... but you must.  And this is the stuff of nightmares, at least, for me.  

In the second half of the book, the tension is relieved somewhat, but it still retains some of it, but reads more like a half legal novel/half legal examination.  That's not to say that it didn't remain a page turner, but I felt the pace of it slowed down a bit (which makes sense).  

The author really delves into a lot of different facets of what happened in the aftermath of Katrina, when the floods brought the worst devastation to the hospital.   She details not only what the doctors and nurses were facing, but what some of the patients, themselves, went through.  She includes detailed floor maps at the beginning, so you can go back and reconstruct what you're reading about. Because she brings in so much detail, it all felt very vivid.   Which is great ... and kinda awful at the same time.

Reading this book gave me insight into many things, including how poorly not only this hospital, but other hospitals, have been prepared for disaster.  The events caused by Hurricane Katrina shone a spotlight on just how poor communication was, and how awful planning was.   It's an eye-opening read just for this.    Is it a book for everyone?  Definitely not.  However, I found it to be fascinating, and a worthy read.

First lines:  At last through the broken windows, the pulse of helicopter rotors and airboat propellers set the summer morning air throbbing with the promise of rescue.  Floodwaters unleashed by Hurrican Katrina had marooned hundreds of people at the hospital, where they had now spent four days.  Doctors and nurses milled in the foul-smelling second-floor lobby.  Since the storm, they had barely slept, surviving on catnaps, bottled water, and rumors.  Before them law a dozen or so mostly elderly patients on soiled, sweat-soaked stretchers.

Note: This book, which weighs in at 486 pages (and that's not including the acknowledgments and notes) will go towards my goal in the Chunkster Reading Challenge


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