Monday, August 31, 2009

Katrina story will hopefully foster public conversation

A day after reading it, I'm still trying to shake the haunting thoughts and emotions that Sheri Fink's "The Deadly Choices at Memorial" evoked in me.

On a broad level, it's a disturbing story about one of the nation's worst recent disasters and the controversial end-of-life care decisions made at Memorial Hospital. (For another good Katrina anniversary story, see "After four years in exile, many Hurricane Katrina evacuees really know what it is to miss New Orleans," Times-Picayune.)

On a journalistic level, it's a compelling narrative chock full of the kinds of details and revelations that can only be achieved through in-depth reporting. While reading it, I constantly asked myself how Fink established such rapport with these sources, some of whom admit to easing patients into their death. Obviously, Fink is a doctor herself, so I'm sure that helped her gain the trust of other health professionals. But she also told the Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma that her reporting philosophy is believing that "very few people do things in this world to be evil. People generally believe in what it is they've done. And I feel like, as a journalist, if you can go in there and be willing to hear that — that honest truth, their reality — that's the real key." See the full video interview here. (Although she doesn't really give away what specific reporting techniques and strategies she used for this story.)

On a personal level, as a Louisiana native who lived through Katrina, the last sentence stuck with me the most: "As bad as disasters are, even worse is survivors who don't trust each other." I think this story will definitely spark conversation among medical professionals and emergency preparedness departments. But I wonder if it will spark the conversation that no one wants to have – the conversation about what people should do during a disaster if a family member is in the hospital or nursing home. What can people who leave these members in the care of a facility expect? Would they be better off trying to evacuate or care for these people themselves, if it is at all possible? The story reminded me of Tom Junod's "The Loved Ones," which touches on many of these same themes. Both the Esquire and New York Times Magazine stories are told dramatically through narrative, as I believe they should be; however, it is my hope that these types of article spur the less dramatic but still quite important and controversial stories that can help people make evacuation decisions based on the condition of family members and understand what protocols the facility plans to follow should evacuation not be possible.

On a personal note, my grandfather is suffering from Alzheimer's and was able to be evacuated with my family to Tennessee last year, but this year, he probably wouldn't be able to make that long trip without falling severely ill. My parents and grandmother fall into the "trust no one" category. I don't think they'd evacuate if my grandfather were in a hospital or nursing home, unless he had already been evacuated. But that's not the safest situation either if the coast has more people not obeying evacuation orders because they don't trust caregivers. The more that hospitals try to put this disaster behind them and not enter the controversial debate, the more scared the general public gets. And as everyone who lives along the coast knows, it's never a matter of if another severe hurricane will hit; it's a matter of when.

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