Strained by Katrina, a Hospital Faced Deadly Choices

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After the floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina that had marooned Memorial Medical Center in New Orleans receded, an investigation took place to determine whether health care workers had hastened the deaths of some patients. A corridor leading to patient rooms on the seventh floor of Memorial Medical Center.

Photo: Paolo Pellegrin/Magnum, for The New York Times

This past Sunday, an article penned by Sheri Fink appeared in the New York Times Magazine in conjunction with ProPublica, about what took place in the days following Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans Memorial Medical Center. Four years after the catastrophe, the piece was two years in the making and 13,000 words long. It has been the source of many conversations from a range of subjects. From remembering and re-examining Katrina, to medical protocol during disasters, to long form and investigative journalism (especially during today’s economic climate). All subjects that probably need more dialog (Save for the “future of journalism” arguments. Unless you have a fresh idea or solution, this one is being beaten to death).

I had read about the (then) upcoming article on many blogs, but just finally got around to reading it. Wow. First, I was excited to find out what the piece was even about. I remember hearing about the doctor that had been indicted in the mercy “killings” and was horrified. The idea that anyone could pass judgment in such extraordinaire conditions about someone who has given their life to save and help people, about decisions made in those extreme circumstances, made me scratch my head. I can’t even begin to fathom what the conditions must have been like. Not only lack of creature comforts were lost to medical personnel and patients, but basic necessities (from sleep to clean water to electricity) were not available. The situation was dire and the best decisions possible were made. Just try and imagine. (Really, stop for a minute and put yourself in the doctors’ and nurses’ shoes.) What you would do? Would you have made any mistakes? Have any regrets? Do anything different? Want to be judged and condemned by people who weren’t there and watched on TV? Or what about you being held responsible for trying to save as many lives as possible, severely limited resources and then being condemned when the government (who failed failed catagorically across the board)? I can’t feel anything but sympathy for Anna Pou. And I can’t find it in me to place one ounce of blame on her shoulders. Even if somewhere, somehow, in some way, any court (civil at this point, the grand jury through out the criminal indictment) found her guilty, I think it would be a disgrace. Surely hindsight is 20/20, but in such extreme conditions I can not fault her, knowing she did the best she could with what she had to work with.
I also feel that some of the arguments against her come from (understandably) emotional family members and the roots would fall in one of two categories: financial or religious. While I chastise people for not being able to really put themselves in the doctors’ and nurses’ shoes, it wouldn’t be fair of me to take the place of family members and believe I could/would rise above the emotion and desire to hold someone accountable for the loss of a loved one. But that’s exactly what I think. And I can’t help but think that in the American way, people look for anyway for a free buck and big payoff, and someone may be trying to take advantage of the situation. And the idea that someone “playing God” just wreaks of religious right.
So here was an in-depth, exhaustive, investigative piece on the ordeal. Fascinating.

I thought it was pretty fair and balanced. I felt that Fink really worked at showing both sides, or all sides, of the coin. But my convictions still ring true, even presented with as much of the facts and voices as she puts out there.

Two years in the making and cost coming in at around $400,000.
The estimated cost breakdown by New York Times Magazine editor Gerry Marzorati :

Ok, roughly:
2 years of reporting by a staff writer, full-time: 200k
Editing for that period by 2 ProPublica editors: 30k
Lawyering hours at ProPublica: 20K
Editing hours at the Times magazine over past year (from me to copy editors, 5 editors in all involved): 40k
Times fact-checking: 10k
Photography fees plus expenses: 40k
Times lawyering fees: 20k
Web and Web graphic costs at both the Times and ProPublica: 10k
Cost of adding 6 pages to the feature well to accommodate story: 24k

Total: 394k+

ProPublica’s page on the story. More with Fink here and here.
New York Times Magazine’s page on the story.