Hello Pittsburgh and Allegheny County! Thank you for adopting Five Days At Memorial for this year’s One Book, One Community program.
The devastation that Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans’ failed levees unleashed on Memorial hospital and the controversial decisions made in their wake grabbed my attention years ago and have continued to hold it. People engulfed in those events and the murder investigations that followed have often described what played out over five days and two city blocks as an endlessly layered onion. I think they are right.
These unfortunate events hold not only fascination but also relevance to our own lives. There are lessons here for how we might better prepare ourselves, our families, and our communities for disasters-whether earthquakes or infectious pandemics. There are also insights to be had for less urgent times. As I wrote in the book’s epilogue: “Emergencies are crucibles that contain and reveal the daily, slower-burning problems of medicine and beyond-our vulnerabilities; our trouble grappling with uncertainty, how we die, how we prioritize and divide what is most precious and vital and limited; even our biases and blindnesses.”
I trained as a doctor and neuroscientist, then worked stints as an aid worker in conflict and disaster situations, and ultimately ended up writing and reporting about the nexus of medicine and crisis, from the Balkan wars of the 1990s to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. I’ve been struck by how often these crises illuminate societal problems that are with us all the time, but are otherwise easily ignored.
If there is a way we can, through reading, walk the hospital’s halls, appreciating moment by moment some fraction of what went on there, should we not be better able to prepare to respond flexibly to whatever emergencies may emerge? In the process, we can further define our values and preferences around the sharing of critical resources and end-of-life care.
Five Days at Memorial has several local connections. Pittsburgh was where the doctor who became the symbol of the Memorial controversy completed part of her surgical training. And it is also the home of one of her critics, former Allegheny County coroner Dr. Cyril Wecht. He was hired as an expert forensic pathologist to help determine whether patients at Memorial were victims of homicide at the hands of health professionals or had died of natural causes during the catastrophe.
Looking beyond Katrina, staff of the UPMC Center for Health Security, along with the Center for Ethics and Policy at Carnegie Mellon University, and the University of Pittsburgh Medical School Department of Critical Care Medicine, have worked in recent years on a project to engage the public on some of the toughest questions to emerge from recent medical emergencies. They have asked members of the public to consider which men, women and children should be prioritized for access to potentially lifesaving healthcare resources at times when needs outmatch supplies.
Five Days at Memorial is the kind of book that invites debate, discussion, and the sharing of perspectives. As its writer and a lifetime book lover, I’m enchanted by the idea of a community experience at once solitary and shared. For years while working on Five Days at Memorial, this story lived in my head. Now it is being discussed in your book clubs, libraries, and events taking place around the community.
Thank you for engaging with it, and I look forward to visiting you.