Five Days at Memorial/Sheri Fink: Reflections

Monday, August 4, 2014

In 2004, as the chair of the Pen First Nonfiction Award, I met Sheri Fink at Lincoln Center. Her book, War Hospital, about physicians working under siege during the Bosnian crisis, was an award finalist. She was in the house, as they say. Gracious. Gentle. Unpretentious.

Fink has a degree in psychology from the University of Michigan and a PhD in Neuroscience and an MD from Stanford University. She is an elegantly boned woman who has assisted refugees on the Kosovo-Macedonia border, in Haiti, Iraq, Mozambique, and elsewhere. Over the course of six years, she researched and reported on the devastating choices made at Memorial Hospital in New Orleans, in the wake of Katrina. That book—Five Days at Memorial: Live and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital—quickly became a national bestseller and an award winner when it was released last year.

I had previously read passages. I am, at last, reading the whole.

Why do we need long-form narrative nonfiction? Why are writers like Sheri Fink as important as politicians—and more powerful than almost any elected official in the stagnated United States right now? Because we are a people, too often, who form opinions based on a headline, a two-minute news segment, a tweet. Because we cannot, on our own, develop a rounded understanding of all the underlying causes of disaster. Because narrative nonfiction of the caliber of a Sheri Fink book forces us to slow down. It illuminates the extenuating circumstances. It yields the stage to a company instead of a solitary actor. It unpacks time. It shows us what it was really like, say, in the aftermath of a storm as generators died, ventilators failed, a hospital became a cauldron, communications were lost, bathrooms overflowed, pets squealed, thugs threatened, helicopters got waved away, pilots grew impatient, and nobody could find any What To Do In Case Of This instructions, because there weren't any. The doctors, nurses, patients, and family members were essentially on their own.

And bad things happened. Terrible things, wrong decisions, accusations of euthanized patients, arrests.

It is shocking. It is shattering. It is a true story—some 500 interviews true. Sheri Fink gave six years of her life to reporting on Memorial so that this sort of thing would not happen again. So that a national conversation might be had, so that guidelines might be put into place, so that a tragedy of this scale might be better imagined and better prevented.

The storms are upon us.

Such dire choices are not just a thing of the past, a relic of our curious history.

Sheri writes about important things with deep, abiding knowledge. Somehow, at the same time, she writes with glorious skill, great fluency, beauty.

The situation was inhuman. Humans were left to figure it out. Here is a brief sampling of Sheri's prose—the world beyond the hospital doors.
A radio played in the corridor, transmitting tales that alarmed the LifeCare staff: hostage situations, prison breaks, someone shooting at police. Looters had used AK-47 assault rifles to commandeer postal vehicles, filling them with stolen good, according to a councilman from Jefferson Parish, which shared a border with the city. A deputy sheriff said on air that he saw a shark swimming around a hotel—or perhaps it was just debris that looked like a shark fin; he wasn't sure.


Serena said...

You've done it again...making that Amazon wish list of mine rise... :)

Melissa said...

I'm listening to this on audio now. Absolutely fascinating.

Beth Kephart said...

Serena, it's such an important read. And Melissa — isn't it amazing? Thank you for believing in it.

  © Blogger templates Newspaper II by 2008

Back to TOP