This is one of those times where I really wish that half stars existed, in which case this would definitely receive four and a half; my least favorite part of the book was the Epilogue which (obviously) I read last. So, for what it's worth, this is a five star book sans
epilogue. In other news: I received this book for free through Goodreads First Reads.
This book was unlike anything else I've ever read in that the author disappears almost immediately. This might just be the nature of narrative non-fiction, but it took me a while to feel comfortable digesting information without knowing how
the information came to be known. However, with very few exceptions, Sheri Fink does a pretty incredible job of giving you the story (really, stories) in all of their complexity without editorializing. This was my favorite thing about this book- that it allowed things to be so complex
I gave each of the five days at Memorial a day of its own to read and digest. While, obviously, I will never know the horrors of the experience, Fink manages to convey how each decision, each moment, each action or inaction seemed in its context in real-time. She intersperses discussions of medical ethics and euthanasia as they pertained to the "characters" at memorial. However, this never comes at the cost of abandoning the portraits of actions in context or of diminishing "the gulf that exist[s] between ending a life in theory and in practice"
The prologue (which is, in essence, through the eyes of Dr. John Thiele) gives the reader the sense of the nuances and weight of the story that Fink is about to unfold:
Hospital CEO L. René Goux had told Thiele that everyone had to be out by nightfall...Thiele wondered what would become of the patients when everyone else left.
He also wondered about the remaining pets, which he'd heard would be released from their kennels to fend for themselves...And Thiele was sure that another kind of "animal" was poised to rampage through the hospital looking for drugs, He later recalled wondering at the time: "...God knows what these crazy people outside are going to do to these poor patients who are dying. They can dismember them, they can rape them, they can torture them" (p.8).
Fink never once shies away from addressing the many entities, be they corporate, governmental or individual that made decisions through action or inaction all contributing in their own ways to the outcomes of this saga, both good and bad. Likewise, she addresses how individuals were forced into roles that deviated from everything they had been trained to do. Neonatologist, Dr. Juan Jorge Gershanik, provides a portrait of this very dilemma:
Gershanik considered the larger reality, the competing priorities that had emerged as waters suffocated an entire city. He was only doing what is ingrained in a doctor-advocating for his own patients-but now he saw that the struggle to save lives extended far beyond the two critically ill neonates in the helicopter(p.94-95).
There are countless examples of breakdowns in communication and information that stemmed not just from failures in technology, but variations in individual interpretations. Amid reports of "hordes" of organized criminals roaming the streets, power outages, families being separated and depleting resources around day four, such an example arises:
In encouraged Angela [the daughter of a patient in critical condition] when she overheard staff members lamenting that they couldn't leave the hospital until every patient was gone. In her mind, that meant they would not leave the patients behind (p.181), brackets mine.
This same piece of information seemed tantamount to a death sentence to some, as doctors and their families, too, feared for their lives and continued to risk their own safety in moving patients to points of evacuation which, in some cases, turned out to not be there (I'm doing a terrible job of summarizing just how nuanced this all was, but hopefully you'll take the time to read for yourselves.)
Perhaps it is human nature to seek out someone to blame at times of tragedy. While I in no way believe the actions of the individuals involved to be comparable, I was reminded of a discussion of this tendency to address crimes in a somewhat one-dimensional matter from [b:Into That Darkness: An Examination of Conscience|562714|Into That Darkness An Examination of Conscience|Gitta Sereny|https://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1320530779s/562714.jpg|2605252]:
...what is decisive in law, and therefore in the whole conduct of human affairs is what a man does on isolated occasions rather than what he is.
Fink portrays the acute differences between the environment in which decisions were made, and the types of narratives sought by people after such a tragedy:
The issue of larger responsibility and blame, regardless of whether it would be admissible in a court of law, was on many people's minds. Individual decisions in the hospital had occurred in a context of failures of every sort (p.346).
Even the Louisiana ADA charged with bringing these cases to court described the disconnect between the events as they occurred and the system under which they needed to be addressed:
Morales felt he was being asked to apply civilian law to a war zone (p.363).
While this book brings you to no single, black and white conclusion about the decisions that were made during those five days at Memorial and their consequences it will make you think and tolerate the uncertainties that are inherent in our world.
I (once again) was reminded of the hard-hitting, highly intellectual reflection of modern society: South Park. Specifically, Captain Hindsight
- the journalist who, after being bitten by a radioactive spider, holds the power of perfect 20/20 hindsight: