I have an interest in what happens in worst case scenarios. I find disaster documentaries fascinating. I don’t know what that says about me, but it does mean that books like Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital are up my alley. Following a glowing review from Lollygagger way back in Cannonball Read 6, I added Sheri Fink’s book to my to read list, and then kept pushing it farther down. Because even though this is an area of non-fiction that interests me, you have to be in a certain mood to read about this much death and destruction.
I took my time, spending about six weeks with the book total, and approximately 4 and a half of those in the first section, in which Fink provides a day by day, minute by minute look at what was happening both inside the walls of Memorial, and in the offices of companies and agencies attempting to help evacuate the hospital following the flooding. It is simply harrowing. There are really no other words. However, I had a tough time sinking in to the narrative. Too many names, too many places, and not enough visual aids. I finished part one pretty sure this book was getting no more than three stars.
Then I got started on section two. I blew through those pages over the course of a few nights. Yes, I will admit to some skimming, but I was mostly skimming to get to the next piece of the puzzle that angered, fascinated, or alarmed me. I had seen a review of the book that complained that Fink was too overt in her opinions on the actions of some of the doctors on the fifth and final day at Memorial. I found that the evidence that Fink provided, as compiled by the persons responsible for investigating those deaths, made it nearly impossible for her narrative to stay entirely neutral. Fink doesn’t editorialize, she isn’t inserting herself into the narrative. She is reporting the facts, and they unfortunately don’t put certain people in a good light.
I found much of the discussion of topics about medical ethics, end of life care, rationing medical care in an emergency, of deciding who should receive treatment first, and who should wait, and the success and failure of various triage systems simply fascinating. And, infuriating. This book jumped up to a four-star book for me because it made me think about the bigger things. I started reading portions out loud to my roommate Ale, who had a similar experience with her latest review, and making her promise that she would support my choices for end of life directive should we ever come to that. We were talking about our reactions to Mary Roach’s book Stiff and donating our bodies to science (we have very intense chats in our house, I’ll miss those when we aren’t roommates anymore).
But perhaps most importantly, Fink puts names to numbers. Numbers are difficult to relate to, and your brain can pass them over. Yes, 54 people died at Memorial in those five days. But many of them didn’t have to, and I’m left with the impression that at least one, was murdered. And his story will stay with me and hopefully keep me paying attention to this larger conversation.