Heroics and Heartbreak in “Five Days at Memorial”

Did she or didn’t she? That’s the big question in Sheri Fink’s much-lauded work of nonfiction, Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital. The “Memorial” in the title is the now renamed Ochsner Baptist, located in New Orleans.


Nearly ten years ago, after the levees failed following Hurricane Katrina, Baptist, like much of the city, began flooding. Fink spends close to 500 pages telling the stories of those who were there: patients, doctors, nurses, hospital administrators, and a great number of family members (and pets) who’d come to ride the storm out, as they’d done so many times before.

After Katrina delivered a glancing blow instead of a direct hit, many in the hospital mistakenly thought the worst was over. However, conditions deteriorated rapidly. Power went out, cutting air-conditioning, and not long after, the hospital’s three generators stopped working as the floodwaters rose, leaving them with no electricity whatsoever.

For many critically ill patients dependent on high-tech devices, the situation became serious. Brave nurses and doctors worked to keep everyone alive and as comfortable as possible — an unimaginable task when you consider the heat and humidity, the stress and lack of sleep, the fear and worry they all faced. Rescue was not easy, and while they did get many patients out safely (including all the premature babies), moving the sickest was a challenge. Indeed, doctors decided to evacuate the least sick and most able-bodied first, leaving the most vulnerable patients for later.

Many of these patients, though, would never leave, and would die at the hospital; 45 in all, the most of any of the New Orleans hospitals following the storm. How, and why, and would could have been done differently, are the questions that remain. Fink tries to answer them.

The book focuses on several doctors who were there, but the central figure is Dr. Anna Maria Pou, a native New Orleanian whose surgical specialty is head and neck cancer. Not long after the waters receded, allegations surfaced that some of the patients had been euthanized, with Dr. Pou and two nurses in the crosshairs. They vigorously denied any wrongdoing, saying they only tried to make patients comfortable. Dr. Pou was eventually charged with second-degree murder, but a grand jury refused to indict her.

The truth is, we can’t know what really happened. Despite Fink’s precise reporting, she wasn’t there and neither were we. This book’s still worth reading, though, to appreciate the heroics of the staff who worked tirelessly in unfathomable conditions to help the patients who did survive.

(Originally published here: http://msbusiness.com/2015/08/book-biz-heartbreak-and-heroics-inside-a-flooded-hospital/)