Apple TV just wrapped up an eight-part series about Hurricane Katrina and the chaos at Memorial Hospital. It’s sobering, upsetting, and I don’t suggest binging – really.
We all remember Hurricane Katrina, the images from the Super Dome, the weeks of ever depressing news. Over time, though, the images have blurred together into one ‘god-that-was-awful’ montage.
Five Days at Memorial changes that, at least through it first five episodes. They are, to grossly under sell, horrific. Memorial Hospital was, like the rest of New Orleans, left on its own for days, then agonizingly slowly evacuated, then ordered abandoned by ‘the authorities.’
The patients and staff were trapped on what basically became an island surrounded by 15-foot deep, dangerously polluted water.
It was horrific. No power, no water, no supplies, hot, humid, no sanitation. Over the last few days, some patients were able to be airlifted by Coast Guard helicopters but it took hours and incredible exertion by five, six staff members at once to get a single patient up to the helipad on the roof. Boats didn’t come until the last two days. The staff was ordered out of the building on the last day.
Weeks later, when the water receded and the city, state, and feds started to access the damage, forty bodies were found in the Memorial Hospital chapel. The Attorney General of Louisiana demanded an investigation – it was suggested then, as it is in the series, that he used the full weight of his office to help take the scrutiny off the state’s lackluster (to be kind) response to Katrina.
Long story short: at least ten of the dead patients had been given high doses of morphine or a morphine/midazolam combination. Their deaths were ruled homicides and one doctor and two nurses were arrested on murder charges. Later, a grand jury refused to indict them.
The situation was horrific, the evidence scant, the medical issues an ethical nightmare. From the fifth episode on, the series becomes a procedural, here’s what I took from it:
1. The investigators were not from New Orleans. They weren’t there for Hurricane Katrina, they didn’t see the levees break. They came in months later. They saw the aftereffects, they then proceeded as if Memorial had been a regular hospital operating as normal – they really weren’t interested in what the conditions actually were.
2. The investigators, again, came after the waters receded. There’s a telling scene when they walk through the basement area. The federal investigator notices pallets of water bottles piled in a corner and says, “Well, they had plenty of water, why are they saying they were short?” The head of the Louisiana contingent just sadly shakes his head.
They didn’t know and certainly didn’t try to find out the why: water burst into the basement while the janitorial staff was trying to barricade the doors. They barely escaped with their lives as a wall of water smashed open the doors and completely flooded the basement. The bottled water was submerged for days.
3. It took different labs months to come up with different results. There was a consensus among forensic labs nowhere near New Orleans that the levels of morphine and midazolam were too high to have been part of any treatment. The New Orleans coroner did not back the findings after pointing out that the bodies had been wrapped and then sat in the chapel in 90-degree weather with high humidity for weeks before tested.
4. Some patients were airlifted out by Coast Guard helicopters, others by boats. The investigators, standing on dry ground, fully hydrated, and healthy couldn’t understand why more didn’t get out that way. Their theory became one of ‘the staff just gave up and took the easy way out (euthanizing immobile patients) rather than taking a few extra steps to save everyone.’
At one point the head investigator, tears in his eyes, says, “My god, they could have done more, it’s not like they were operating in a battlefield.”
A battlefield was, of course, exactly what they were operating in – as the first five episodes vividly showed.
5. The investigators had no answer when the New Orleans Coroner asked, “The people who stayed in that hospital all volunteered. If you indict them, who do you think will volunteer to take care of patients in the next crisis?”
Those are the facts. I have no idea what was right and what was wrong about the things that happened at Memorial. I can only say I’m glad I wasn’t there and I’m glad I didn’t face the same decisions those medical professionals that.
But I can attest to how accurate the series portrayed how a police investigation is conducted and how it comes to the decisions it comes to.
The investigators went into this to prove that there was a crime, this was no evenhanded, let’s really find our what happened investigation. It would take Sheri Fink’s Pulitzer Prize winning series of articles and book to do that.
The last three episodes are a clinic on confirmation bias. In this case they didn’t just mold the facts to fit the assumption, they molded the weather to fit their case.
I am positive this story would have had a vastly different ending, if the doctor who was ultimately arrested hadn’t gone to a criminal attorney as soon as she was tipped off by a colleague that there was an investigation.
He advised her well and she did nothing to feed the confirmation bias beast.