In the days after Hurricane Katrina ripped New Orleans apart in August 2005, doctors and administrators at the city’s Memorial Medical Center faced critical and agonizing decisions.
With electrical power gone, the levees failing and the water rising higher and higher, doctors had to decide which patients to save.
In some cases, patients who were already teetering on the edge of death, or suffered from terminal conditions, were given morphine to ease their departure.
More than 14 years later, some of the people who made those decisions still live with guilt, according to Sheri Fink, a reporter for The New York Times who won a Pulitzer Prize for chronicling the choices that were made at Memorial Medical Center. She detailed what occurred at the hospital and its ethical and legal implications in an Oct. 21 talk at Washington & Jefferson College in Washington.
Fink pointed out to students, faculty and community members that disasters “are occurring with more and more frequency,” spawning ethical questions in their wake. That leaves us to grapple with whether a crisis of the magnitude the personnel at Memorial Medical Center faced makes it permissible to break ethical rules, she said, or makes it all the more important to be committed to “our deepest moral values.
“The value of thinking through these things is thinking about how we would react,” Fink said.
The year after Katrina tore its deadly path across New Orleans, one doctor and two nurses were charged with second-degree murder stemming from the deaths of several patients at Memorial Medical Center. However, a grand jury declined to bring down indictments and the charges were dismissed.
Fink expanded her reporting on Memorial Medical Center in the 2013 book, “Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital.” It won a National Book Critics Circle Award for nonfiction writing.
A native of the Detroit area, she received a psychology degree from the University of Michigan and later received her M.D. and Ph.D. from Stanford University. Her first book, “War Hospital: A True Story of Surgery and Survival,” details the work of medical professionals who were under siege during the genocide in Bosnia in the early 1990s.
Fink appeared at W&J as part of the J. Robert Maxwell Visiting Scholar Series.