We loved our recent Book Club pick, “Five Days at Memorial,” so much that we asked author Sheri Fink a few more questions about her book. Check it out!
The book clearly illustrates the grim realities associated with natural disasters. What do you think can be done to stop things like this happening in the future?
Preparedness is a never-ending process. It’s not enough to just respond to the last disaster, fund projects for a few years, and then let our defenses lapse. Being proactive means analyzing local risks and investing both publicly and privately in improving critical infrastructure like hospitals and nursing homes so that they can better withstand hazards like flooding or earthquakes without loss of power and water. Organizations need to prepare more, with an eye to crisis leadership and communications, and that includes running realistic drills with the larger community and even competitors. Government and private officials should be honest about preparedness gaps and reveal the true outcomes of disasters—we need more real-time research about what works and doesn’t work. Also, because help can take a long time to arrive from outside during a crisis, every individual needs to be prepared to function in a disaster. Have a plan for yourself, your family, and the vulnerable people around you. Check out ready.gov or your local health department website for ideas. Be prepared to change the plan to meet the actual situation. If you should ever find yourself in a crisis, try to remember that there will be a tomorrow, that one day the crisis will be over, and you will want to be able to live with the actions and decisions you’ve taken.
What do these events suggest about the role of doctors as caregivers vs. doctors as crisis responders?
These events showed that doctors as natural leaders will step up to make difficult decisions in a disaster—but if they aren’t well prepared they won’t always make good decisions. Education and ongoing training could help give them those tools, and not only doctors. Because a disaster can strike anywhere, anytime, and the casualties will likely need medical care, hospital staff members need to be ready for the constellation of emergencies that could befall them. More than that, doctors and other caregivers should be speaking to patients about emergency plans, particularly patients who live at home, rely on electricity or medications, and need to know where they will get them in an emergency.
The book touches upon a number of extremely difficult and disturbing topics. What was the reporting like for you personally? Were there times when you were overwhelmed by what you were seeing?
A time of crisis often brings out the best in human beings. You see how strong and resilient people are. There are many examples of creative thinking and selfless assistance to others in Five Days at Memorial. Whenever I would get outraged or upset by what I was seeing or hearing, I’d think about the fact that getting these events into the open could help other people contend with an emergency.
What was your intention in writing the book? Ideally, who do you want to read it, and who would most benefit from reading it?
These were extraordinarily important events in our nation’s history, and everyone can benefit from knowing about them because any of us could find ourselves or our loved ones in a hospital during a disaster. All of us can benefit from thinking through worst-case scenarios and coming to our own conclusions about how to be better decision-makers. And it goes beyond that, because a disaster shows us truths about our everyday selves and society. Thinking about triage, end-of-life issues, and preparedness can be helpful in dealing with everyday brushes with the healthcare system and the arc of aging.