Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-ravaged Hospital by Sheri Fink – Off the Shelf Review

Five Days at Memorial Book CoverDisturbing and Eye Opening – 3.5 Stars

I generally read fiction but will take a chance on non-fiction when the topic grabs my attention. Five Days at Memorial certainly did that.  It is thought provoking and deals with issues that many people who do not work in the medical field (and some who do) will find controversial.

The story is set at Memorial Hospital in New Orleans after the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina and the breaking of the levees. After surviving the hurricane winds, the hospital is confronted with fifteen feet of water that is guaranteed to disrupt the Hospital’s main power supply and force it survive off back up generators. Subsequent power failures leave the hospital without power, clean running water, working toilets, air or medical oxygen lines.  Amongst the many patients, there were many patients that were critical, many of whom relied on ventilators.   Near the end of the 5 day ordeal, a set of patients are given morphine shots that played a role in hastening their deaths. The players in the story are left to piece together the puzzle and make a judgment whether or not this was murder or this was justifiable and appropriate end of life care.

My wife is a nurse and as such, we have discussed this issue on multiple occasions. It is common practice to prescribe morphine to patients when they are close to death. The result for many patients is a suppression of their breathing but a reduction of pain. The morphine inevitably hastens the dying process but the patients are not in pain or are in less distress as they are dying.

The Good

The story is more complex than my explanation would lead you to believe. The situation was in fact dire but the physical condition of the patients prior to their death was less clear and there were questions on how much longer these patients would have been able to survive in the storm ravaged hospital.  The story does not lead to simple conclusions as it deals with more that a discussion of right or wrong. The novel deals with issues related to euthanasia, trauma care in disasters, triage practices, politics, ethics and emergency preparedness to name a few. There are enough important issues in this novel that you could easily take a month to read it while mulling over complexities raised.

Being a fan of crime and thriller fiction, I appreciated the writing style of the author. Overall, it had a journalistic feel but the author was quite adept at developing the characters of the story and the reader was able to identify with the major players. Her description of the disaster and days following was exciting and grabbed your attention.  The novel was written with a narrative as opposed to simple sets of facts and, for the most part, was easy to read.

The Bad

The book was really two separate stories. The first half was a story of the disaster and the immediate fallout at Memorial Hospital. The second half was a story of the subsequent investigation and the repercussions of the actions immediately after the storm. While the first half grabbed my attention, I quickly lost interest with the second half of the book. I would have been happy to read a short epilogue relating what happened to the major characters. The investigation portion was so bogged down in facts and minutia of the investigation that I skimmed over substantial portions.

This story also requires your full attention. The cast of characters can put some epic fantasy series to shame. In fact, the first 5 pages or so are devoted to listing the names of the persons involved, their part in the story and where they worked. It was quite daunting and became unruly by the end.

Final Thoughts

Despite the 3.5 star rating, this is one of the finest and most thoroughly researched pieces of non-fiction I have read. The authors dedication to her research was apparent and she should be commended. Had the book been about 100 pages shorter, I would have found the experience of reading it to be more rewarding. This is not light reading but I recommend it to fans of non-fiction.

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Tim Written by:

Tim is a lawyer, sports fan, parent, husband and book lover. He runs his own legal practice and is the founder of The Literary Lawyer book blog and a contributing writer for Tim loves to share his love of reading by providing reviews to entertain as well as provide information to help you make an informed reading decision.