Prompted by its appearance in a “Radiolab” episode called “Playing God”, I sought out Sheri Fink’s work, “Five Days at Memorial”, about one hospital’s horrifying experience during and after Hurricane Katrina.
“For certain New Orleanians, Memorial Medical Center was the place you went to ride out each hurricane that the loop current of the Gulf of Mexico launched like a pinball at the city.”
What began as a place of safety and security soon began to resemble Dante’s inferno. Lost power, miscommunication, and unpredictable evacuation attempts led eventually to chaos, confusion, and, in a tragic number of instances, untimely death.
“The sun rose and with it the temperature. The hospital was stifling, its walls sweating. Water had stopped flowing from taps, toilets were backed up, and the stench of sewage mixed with the odor of hundreds of unwashed bodies. Interior corridors were enveloped in darkness penetrated only by dancing flashlight beams. Without working phones, televisions, computers, and overhead pagers, information was scarce. Critical messages passed voice to voice up and down the staircases.”
Sheri Fink comes from a background as a journalist covering health and medicine, and her style is markedly journalistic. Fink’s book is full of details and quotes, but their distribution is uneven and often unsettling. Sometimes a preponderance of facts is followed by a jarring jump in time, cutting short any ability for the tension and the mood to build. While some passages attempt to set the scene and engage the reader, many more are cold and impersonal. The organization, or lack thereof, throughout the narrative was also surprising and disappointing. One expects all storytellers, and particularly those coming from the world of journalism, to build a foundation and develop a timeline that carries and even enhances the story.
With all of these hurdles, I found myself struggling to continue, engaged in the story but not in her story. Ultimately, my attachment and applause were reserved for the history, the extraordinary and unimaginable terrors so many people faced and the unfathomable decisions they felt forced to make. Unfortunately, Fink does not get the credit for those. Torn between wanting to praise a story that needs to be told and demanding of myself an honest assessment of this particular telling, I abandoned the book 250 pages in. Frankly, the outtake developed (and clearly heavily produced) by Radiolab was a more memorable and poignant story (listen here).