Dr. Sheri Fink began her career in medicine but found herself drawn to reporting on hospitals in times of crisis. The physician-turned-journalist reported on the aftermath of mega-disaster, Hurricane Katrina and received a Pulitzer Prize for her investigations, which were published by ProPublica, the nonprofit news organization, and The New York Times. Below is an excerpt of “The Deadly Choices at Memorial,” co-published by ProPublica and The New York Times Magazine in August, 2009.
Nearly 48 hours after Katrina made landfall near New Orleans — Memorial’s backup generators sputtered and stopped. Ewing Cook later described the sudden silence as the “sickest sound” of his life. In LifeCare on the seventh floor, critically ill patients began suffering the consequences. Alarm bells clanged as life-support monitors and ventilators switched to brief battery reserves while continuing to force air into the lungs of seven patients. In about a half-hour, the batteries failed and the regular hiss of mechanical breaths ceased. A Memorial nurse appeared and announced that the Coast Guard could evacuate some critical patients if they were brought to the helipad immediately. Volunteers began carrying the LifeCare patients who relied on ventilators down five flights of stairs in the dark.
A LifeCare nurse navigated the staircase alongside an 80-year-old man on a stretcher, manually squeezing air into his lungs with an Ambu bag. As he waited for evacuation on the second floor, she bagged him for nearly an hour. Finally a physician stopped by the stretcher and told her that there was no oxygen for the patient and that he was already too far gone. She hugged the man and stroked his hair as he died.
Anna Pou began bagging another patient on the second floor to relieve a nurse whose hands were growing tired. That patient, along with two other LifeCare patients who relied on ventilators, also died early that morning, but the others were evacuated by helicopter. The hospital chaplain opened a double door with stained-glass windows down the hallway, and the staff began wheeling bodies into the chapel. Distraught nurses cried, and the chaplain held them and prayed with them.
The sun rose and with it the sultry New Orleans temperature, which was on its way to the mid-90s. 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.
Visitors who had come to the hospital for safety felt so desperate that they cheered when two airboats driven by volunteers from the Louisiana swamplands roared up to the flooded emergency-room ramp. The flotilla’s organizers, Mark and Sandra LeBlanc, had a special reason to come to Memorial: Vera LeBlanc, Mark’s 82-year-old mother, was at LifeCare, recovering from colon-cancer surgery. Sandra, an E.M.T., knew that her mother-in-law couldn’t swallow, so she was surprised when she saw that Vera and other patients who needed IVs to keep hydrated were no longer getting them. When her husband asked a Memorial administrator why, the administrator told him that the hospital was in survival mode, not treating mode. Furious, Mark LeBlanc asked, “Do you just flip a switch and you’re not a hospital anymore?”
What originally sparked Dr. Fink’s investigative journalism was her time in Srebrenica, Bosnia-Herzegovina during the early 1990s. Her experiences inspired her first book “War Hospital: A True Story of Surgery and Survival.” “War Hospital” received the American Medical Writer’s Association special book award and was a finalist for the Overseas Press Club and PEN Martha Albrand awards.