What Happens When Disaster Strikes? A Message from Sheri Fink

?????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????By Sheri Fink, author of Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital (Crown, September 2013).

Memorial Medical was surrounded by floodwaters after the levees failed in New Orleans in 2005, drowning one of America’s great cities. Within hours, all power would fail. The heat rose. Rescue helicopters began arriving. They transported one or two patients at a time, but there were around 250 patients and 2,000 staff and family members. Who should be rescued first?

Five Days at Memorial is about what happens when disaster strikes and the systems our lives depend on fail at the moment we need them the most. It is a call to learn from the past and do better next time—and there are no readers more capable of implementing these lessons than young people.

This book transports students into the heart of a disaster scenario and makes them ask themselves: “What would I do?” They grapple with triage and end-of-life dilemmas, and face profound questions: Do exceptional times allow us to make exceptions to moral rules—or does a time of crisis call for an even deeper commitment to our fundamental values?

The first half of the book recreates the events moment by moment from a variety of perspectives. The second half examines how the legal system and society adjudicates potentially criminal actions—in this case, the intentional hastening of patient deaths—when they take place outside of a normal context. As a teaching tool, Five Days at Memorial contains vital preparedness points for careers in health care, criminal justice, the law, journalism, business administration, environmental science, engineering, and sociology, among others. It reads quickly because of the strong narrative and novelistic pull. Extensive endnotes offer jumping-off points for students to expand their research, building on cross-disciplinary themes including ethical decision-making, disaster preparedness, resilience, leadership, and the history of American race relations.

I’m a physician and neuroscientist by training. I’ve delivered humanitarian aid in disasters and conflict zones around the world. What I’ve learned in every disaster is that what matters most in the immediate crisis—when the systems fail, as they almost inevitably do—are the decisions and actions of regular people. Five Days at Memorial tells the story of one of the most gripping and fascinating real-life events I’ve ever reported on, but it also carries an important message: We all have a role to play in preparing for and responding to crises. Thinking through these decisions in advance will better prepare students for making tough choices in reality.

When invited to campuses, I work hard to tailor my presentations to fit unique interests and needs. I love meeting with students and faculty. I’d be thrilled for Five Days at Memorial to be considered for your reading project, and would be excited to brainstorm ways to involve the campus and community in discussions.

Visiting your school and engaging with your students as part of your Freshman Experience Program and course adoptions would be a great honor. Please contact me through my website, sherifink.net, to get things started.

SHERI FINK’S reporting has won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Magazine Award, and the Overseas Press Club Lowell Thomas Award, among other journalism prizes. Most recently, her coverage of Hurricanes Sandy and Isaac received the Mike Berger Award from Columbia University and the Beat Reporting Award from the Association of Healthcare Journalists. Fink, a former relief worker in disaster and conflict zones, received her MD and PhD from Stanford University. Her first book, War Hospital, is about medical professionals under siege during the genocide in Srebrenica, Bosnia-Herzegovina.

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