‘Five Days at Memorial’: How Katrina forced life-or-death decisions at a New Orleans hospital

Vera Farmiga leads the strong cast of Apple TV+ series that provokes thought about a grave ethical issue.

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Dr. Anna Pou (Vera Farmiga, left) and hospital colleagues watch the flood waters rise in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in “Five Days at Memorial.”

Apple TV+

On numerous occasions throughout its eight-episode run, the gripping and at times emotionally exhausting Apple TV+ series “Five Days at Memorial” is reminiscent of 1970s disaster films such as “The Poseidon Adventure” and “The Towering Inferno,” in that a catastrophic event occurs and we follow a disparate group of people who will have to make some incredibly stressful, life-or-death decisions as they try to survive. In scene after scene, the special and practical effects create viscerally effective, heart-pounding scenarios.

Here’s the monumental difference. The aforementioned movies were pure fiction, and often relied on soap opera melodramatics and borderline camp storylines set against the backdrop of calamity, whereas “Five Days at Memorial” is an interpretation of real-life events in New Orleans in 2005, when the floods from Hurricane Katrina overwhelmed Memorial Medical Center, trapping thousands of patients and health care professionals for days.

Hampered by no coordinated response effort, communications problems, start-and-stop rescue attempts and the loss of power to essential medical equipment, doctors and administrators had to decide the order of patients to be evacuated and ultimately if some patients simply couldn’t be saved, and whether it would be more humane to euthanize them. A total of 45 patients died before the hospital was fully evacuated, and a doctor and two nurses were arrested on suspicion of killing four patients with lethal injection cocktails, though a grand jury eventually refused to indict.

‘Five Days at Memorial’

Untitled

A limited series premiering with three episodes Friday on Apple TV+, followed by a new episode every Friday through Sept. 16.

Bringing this story to at times heartbreaking fruition, showrunners Carlton Cuse (“Lost,” the “Jack Ryan” TV series ) and John Ridley (Oscar-winning writer of “12 Years a Slave” and creator of the series “American Crime”) have crafted a thought-provoking series with traditional plot and framing devices that lay out events in clear fashion, with the ensemble cast—led by Vera Farmiga in one of her finest roles—turning in resonant work. In adapting the acclaimed book “Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital” by Sheri Fink, Cuse and Ridley have stuck to the reported facts of the case while infusing the story with heart-tugging human interest stories.

Many of the early episodes begin in the aftermath of the Katrina disaster, with investigators (Michael Gaston) and Virginia Rider (Molly Hager) questioning various key participants in the events leading up to the deaths of those 45 patients. “You’re making [the deaths] sound intentional,” says the avuncular Dr. Horace Baltz (Robert Pine). “Please, please, you have to understand the circumstances.”

“How did those 45 people die?” comes the reply from Schafer.

Flashback to Aug. 29, 2005, with the storm just starting to hit and staffers at Memorial (as well as the corporate-owned, independently run facility called LifeCare) seeming well-prepared—this isn’t their first hurricane—though there is concern over news reports indicating this could be the storm of the century. (As a director, Ridley employs the effective technique of going to real news reports and archival footage of the storm and its aftermath, and then plunging us into the fictional story with jarring, quick-cut closeups.)

The hospital takes in more than 1,200 displaced residents, effectively becoming a shelter in the storm, and while there’s a sense of uneasiness permeating the night, it appears as if they’ve weathered the worst of it by morning. “Everybody was happy and relieved and thankful,” says Susan Mulderick (Cherry Jones), the hospital’s nursing director and incident commander.

Then the flood walls and the levees break, and the water levels at the hospital rise and rise—and nobody seems to know exactly what to do. Mulderick learns there’s no evacuation plan in case of massive flooding, the water is becoming too deep for rescue trucks, and the only way to access the rickety helicopter pad atop the building is by climbing multiple flights of stairs—while carrying patients. (And that’s if and when the helicopters come.) As a National Guardsman says to Mulderick and her associates, if they’re waiting for some kind of official plan with an established chain of command, “it’s not coming.”

In an after-the-fact interview with the investigators, Dr. Bryant King (Cornelius Smith Jr.) sums it up in chilling and succinct fashion:

“What stands out for me is it was just five days. It only took five days for everything to fall apart.”As the evacuation efforts proceeded in excruciatingly slow fashion, and with the hospital power out and essential machines not operating, Farmiga’s Dr. Anna Pou was faced with a decision no doctor ever wants to confront: Convinced some of the worse-off patients were certain to die before being rescued, and seeing them in unbearable pain, does she stand by and do nothing, or administer a lethal injection in the name of comfort care?

Many saw Pou’s actions as heroic and noble. Others, including the district attorney and the families of some of the fallen, called it murder.

In later chapters, “Five Days at Memorial” shifts gears and becomes something akin to an elongated episode of “Law & Order,” as we see how the investigation played out, and the point of view often shifts to Schafer and Rider, who are convinced Pou and her associates broke the law. We understand where they’re coming from, but as portrayed by Farmiga, Dr. Pou comes across as a brilliant and passionate doctor who wasn’t trying to “play God” or letting her ego consume the moment; she did what she did out of a sense of obligation and ethical duty, and she’d do it again if the circumstances presented themselves.

God forbid.

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