As the Hurricane Katrina floodwaters began to recede, New Orleans was gripped by a horrifying story: Did beleaguered staff at Memorial Medical Center — powerless, stranded, fearing looters — effectively euthanize some of their most critically ill patients, the ones they thought could not survive the fetid heat, by injecting them with morphine and Versed? There were 244 patients alive in the complex when the winds started to whip the rain into sideways sheets and shatter the windows; five days later, when the rescue efforts had ended, 45 of them were in the hospital’s makeshift morgues. Why had so many died? The staff argued that the appalling conditions led to the deaths, and much of New Orleans was on their side. But Louisiana attorney general Charles Foti believed otherwise, at least in some of the cases. He even arrested a doctor and two nurses — though all charges against them were later dropped.
Sheri Fink, a journalist and doctor who won a Pulitzer for her New York Times pieces on the patient deaths at Memorial, has shaped her research into an elegant narrative, Five Days at Memorial, with all the page-turning pull of a novel, no easy feat given the complexity of the story. She shows how the moral dilemmas that arose with the waters — Who would be evacuated first? Who would live? Who would die? — were rooted in corporate greed, a poor disaster plan, and the government’s shoddy response to the storm. The staff at the hospital weren’t evil. Far from it. They were a compassionate team, scrambling to keep their patients hydrated and cool. Yet almost 20 percent did not survive. Fink’s riveting, hour-by-hour reconstruction of what went on in those smotheringly hot rooms is so detailed that it leaves no doubt as to what happened with those deadly syringes — and why. A