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Published in CenterView on December 16, 2013

Katrina-ravaged hospital focus of Common Reading Project

By Tom Fortner

At major medical centers like the University of Mississippi Medical Center, there are disasters – bus wrecks, tornadoes, plant explosions and the like – that test the preparedness and grit of these institutions and their staffs.

And then there are the disasters that, because of their sheer magnitude, bring them to their knees and the only choice left is evacuation, if they’re lucky.

A flood can do that. And there’s no better example than what occurred in UMMC’s own front yard, figuratively speaking, in 2005.
“Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital” is the story of how one New Orleans hospital fared during the worst natural disaster in American history – the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. So compelling, critically acclaimed and – above all – apropos is the book to UMMC that it has been selected for this year’s Common Reading Project. 

The CRP, the third undertaken at UMMC, is a joint effort of the Division of Multicultural Affairs, the School of Medicine Departments of Student Affairs and Academic Affairs, and the Center for Bioethics and Medical Humanities. 

The organizers’ hope is that students, faculty and staff will read the book and take part in an interactive discussion on Friday, Jan. 17, in room CW106 of the Classroom Wing. Earlier projects focused on “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” and “The Spirit Catches Me and I Fall Down.”

In this latest book, physician-turned-journalist Sheri Fink tells the story of Memorial Medical Center, located in the uptown section of the Big Easy. After water overtopped the levees and began rising in the streets, hundreds of people in the hospital were cut off, with limited fresh water, power or the ability to resupply. Meanwhile, 52 patients in an intensive care wing were languishing, unable to be evacuated in a city that had descended into chaos.

What transpired over the next five days was a kind of medical nightmare. Forty-five patients died before they could be rescued. After an investigation, the State of Louisiana alleged that 20 were victims of homicide, euthanized by the very medical staff to whom their care was entrusted. 

As one might expect, there was more to the story than that, and the harrowing tale of what happened after the floodwaters receded is what Fink spends the balance of the book reporting.


Jonathan Wilson, director of the Center for Emergency Services, will be a facilitator for the discussion. He said the book provides a teaching moment for the importance of disaster preparedness.

“I think the book points up, first, that we should all have a plan for ourselves and our loved ones in the event of a disaster,” Wilson said. “And second, that disasters of all types pose a very real threat in health care and we have a responsibility to be as prepared as possible to respond.”

Ultimately, Wilson said, the book will serve as a mirror that any current or future health-care provider can hold in front of his or her own face.

“It gives us all reason to pause, reflect and ponder, ‘What would I have done if I were there and in that situation?’”