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.

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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/)

“Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas” Both Delights and Challenges

New Orleans is suffused with history, with mystery, with violence, and with sublime beauty. From shrimp po-boys to extravagant Mardi Gras floats, from the enormous live oaks lining St. Charles Avenue like silent, ancient sentries to second-line parades with loud brass bands weaving their way over pothole-laden streets, New Orleans leaves an impression. Trying to understand and make sense of all the facets of the place, and all the attendant contradictions, is a task with seemingly no end. The beautiful Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas can help with this, and I’d highly recommend it to anyone the least bit infatuated with the Crescent City.

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Part coffee table book, part history and culture guide, Unfathomable City is, like New Orleans herself, unique. Filled with twenty-two gorgeously illustrated and colored maps of the city, each spread across two pages, it’s an atlas that aims to both educate and challenge. Essays accompany each map, written by different people, giving us a host of voices as we traverse across the city. They all guide us to consider something different about the history of New Orleans – or about its future.

You won’t find staid street maps here, showing you how to get from the French Quarter to Audubon Park. Instead, you’ll uncover, for instance, the history and purpose of the social aid and pleasure clubs that dot the city, along with a map showing the routes and dates for all of their second-line parades. Several maps detail the city’s rich musical heritage, tracing its roots to its African lineage. Another eulogizes the city’s dead by highlighting its above-ground cemeteries. Yet another pays homage to the Native American tribes who were there first, including the Houma, who’ve been forced out over the years into the bayou communities south of the city proper – bayou communities that themselves are now facing extinction as the land continues to erode.

Maps bring to mind certainty: hard lines, boundaries, clarity. Certainty’s hard to come by here, though. The story of this atlas is change. Whether we’re looking at physical changes in the land near New Orleans (one acre of Louisiana coast disappears into the Gulf each hour) or troubling changes in the city after Hurricane Katrina (like the closure of Charity Hospital, which had been operating since 1736), the maps and essays here document history as well as evolution. They also focus on both pleasure and despair, like so much of New Orleans culture.

Unfathomable City is aptly named, but that “unfathomable” quality doesn’t diminish appreciation, it heightens it.

(Originally published here: http://msbusiness.com/blog/2015/03/06/louann-lofton-a-book-of-maps-for-lovers-of-new-orleans/)