Five Days at Memorial’s true story — A heartbreaking tale

Five Days at Memorial

Five Days at Memorial chronicles one of America’s most avoidable disasters and forces one to think of the crushing weight placed on doctors when the government fails to act in an emergency. Vera Farmiga plays Anna Pou, a beloved doctor who took charge of an impossible situation, consequently making fatal – in her view, necessary – decisions. 

In late August 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit the gulf of Mexico, ravaging the vulnerable New Orleans. The Memorial Medical Center, for decades a storm shelter for residents, housed around 2,000 people when the storm struck. Unfortunately, the flooding, consequent power loss, and bungled emergency response turned the refuge into a hellhole. 

The situation at Memorial turned bleak after floods hit the hospital and blocked the streets

The building housing Memorial had withstood New Orleans’ natural disasters since 1926. Therefore, people flocked to the building before the storm hit. Despite violent shaking and the occasional groan, the building weathered the first storm. 

The violent storm had cut the electricity supply to the hospital, but the generators had picked up the slack, powering essential equipment. On the evening of day 1, water had started receding from the streets, signaling another victory for the decades-old structure.

However, disaster struck the morning after. Sheri Fink, the author of Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged hospital, wrote in The New York Times:

“The morning after Katrina hit, Tuesday, Aug. 30, a nurse called to Pou: ‘Look outside!’ What Pou saw from the window was hard to believe: water gushing from the sewer grates. Other staff members gaped at the dark pool of water rimmed with garbage crawling up South Claiborne Avenue in the direction of the hospital.”

Dr. Anna M. Pou | Lee Celano/The New York Times

Flooding threatened to cut off the power supply: the power-transfer switches lay a few feet above the ground. The hospital’s 246-page emergency plan lacked guidelines on how to run the hospital in the event of a complete power failure and how to evacuate people if the streets were flooded. 

The doctors at the hospital decided to give children, pregnant mothers, and critically ill patients priority as they were at greater risk of death due to the ever-increasing heat; the backup generators didn’t power air conditioning. Patients with D.N.R orders were given the least priority. Fink wrote:

“Then Deichmann broached an idea that was nowhere in the hospital’s disaster plans. He suggested that all patients with Do Not Resuscitate orders should go last.”

However, Memorial’s doctors created the priority list without considering LifeCare, a hospital within Memorial that cared for critically ill patients. 

The doctors at Memorial injected lethal drugs in patients they considered terminal

On day 2, evacuations from the Coast Guard and medical helicopters began. However, the rescue efforts were uncoordinated and failed to clear out the critically ill. On day 3, the generators cut out. Fink wrote:

“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.”

Patients who couldn’t breathe without ventilators died, temperatures soared, and the taps ran dry. The staff struggled to treat patients in darkness and turned away patients arriving in makeshift rafts and boats. 

With help arriving slowly and too many people on the brink of death, some physicians started contemplating the unthinkable. Fink wrote:

“It was a desperate situation and he saw only two choices: quicken their deaths or abandon them. It was actually to the point where you were considering that you couldn’t just leave them; the humane thing would be to put ‘em out.”

Even as rescue efforts accelerated, physicians opined that some patients wouldn’t survive. The doctors dubbed such patients ‘chronically deathbound’ and took the heartbreaking decision to end their suffering through euthanasia – though nobody said the word out loud. Fink wrote:

“Cook [one of the senior physicians] said he told Pou how to administer a combination of morphine and a benzodiazepine sedative. The effect, he told me, was that patients would ‘’go to sleep and die.’ He explained that it ‘cuts down your respiration so you gradually stop breathing and go out.’”

Of the 45 patients who died at Memorial, 20 were homicide victims, according to the State of Louisiana. In July 2006, the police arrested Pou and two nurses: Lori Budo and Cheri Landry. Dr. Frank Minyatd, the doctor who performed autopsies, testified at a grand jury hearing.

Lori Budo and Cheri Landry

Fink wrote: “Minyard told me that in the end, he decided that four of the nine deaths on the seventh floor were homicides, including Emmett Everett and Rose Savoie. Until now, he has never publicly revealed that conclusion. He also said of Pou, ‘I strongly do not believe she planned to kill anybody, but it looks like she did.’”

The jury opted not to indict Pou and the nurses, a popular decision among a public who viewed the medical staff as heroes.