Posted in Books, Observations

Morality Tales

five daysSeveral years ago, before I went digital with the New York Times, I was transfixed by a Sunday magazine cover story about the fate of a New Orleans hospital, its staff and its patients during the hell wrought by Hurricane Katrina. The lengthy article, “The Deadly Choices at Memorial,” and the accompanying images were so compelling that I dropped whatever plans I had for the next couple of hours to finish it.

The author of that piece, Sheri Fink, won a Pulitzer Prize. She’s now expanded her reporting to book length, and the result, “Five Days at Memorial,” is a story of failure after failure. It ends in the deaths of 34 patients, accusations of euthanasia and a grand jury’s refusal to indict a physician for purportedly overdosing certain patients with morphine and other drugs to hasten their deaths in the face of their perceived inability to survive evacuation from the hospital. That responders were actually arriving en masse as these patients were administered their final medication is the stuff of nightmares.

Fink, a physician herself, has written a harrowing account of conditions at Memorial Medical Center which resulted not from the hurricane itself, which caused relatively minor damage to the hospital, but from a power failure induced by flooding when the levees broke. The lack of real planning, the bureaucratic snafus, the careless mindset of the suits staffing the hospital’s corporate owner, the leadership failures and most of all, the lack of communication, were overwhelming. But as Fink rightly points out, dealing with the physical problems of power outages and rescue techniques pale in comparison with the real issue of how to allocate limited medical resources in the face of such a large-scale disaster. What are the triage criteria? Do you evacuate the sickest and/or DNR (do not resuscitate) patients last, as Memorial did, a decision which evidently flew in the face of common practice? And who should make these decisions? How and when should they be made? It’s heartening to learn at the end of “Five Days at Memorial” that Memorial is the exception, not the rule: Bellevue Hospital, which in the face of Hurricane Sandy endured the same conditions as Memorial, saw all of its patients rescued, including those in even worse shape than the New Orleans patients whose lives were ended. Why? Better organization, better cooperation and most of all, better communication among staff.

“Five Days at Memorial,” despite some repetition and an occasionally bumpy narrative (not surprising, given that some of the author’s sources understandably refused to go on record), is worth your time. Food for thought, indeed.

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Another type of morality tale was reported today in the New York Times: the business of posting mug shots online and the even scurvier business of removing them for a fee.  Aside from making me crave a shower after reading it, this article reminds me of the game “How many things are wrong with this picture?” Answer? Far too many for comfort.

Yes, mug shots are public records in many jurisdictions. But the sites which post them and may subsequently remove them upon request if the subject can prove exoneration, acquittal, or—get this—that they’ve “turned their life around” make me ill. Who appointed these site runners God? What makes them any different from Aware, Inc. or the other “commie” clearinghouses during the 1950’s who passed judgment on every actor proposed for a TV show, and for a fee yet?

While the mug shot clean-up businesses are easy to deal with (license them and cite them for violation of consumer protection laws if they fail to perform the promised service), it’s the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and its ilk that really got to me. Do they ever acknowledge that the vast majority of people whose mug shots appear online have only been arrested? That in the vast majority of cases the charges are dropped or negotiated down to mere violations? It’s telling indeed that there’s no discussion whatsoever by the spokesmen of these special interests of the impact on the lives of those whose mug shots show up online, the real extent of which is only hinted at in the article.

I once represented a woman facing domestic violence charges stemming from an overly liquid anniversary dinner she shared with her husband. Too much wine turned a trip down memory lane into a needling contest which continued after they left the restaurant and arrived home. Pushing and shoving ensued, at which point she picked up the phone and dialed 911. It happened too long ago for me to remember the details, but she was the one arrested, and while the husband was remorseful when he sobered up, she was strip searched and booked (In my state it’s the arresting police officer who’s the complainant, therefore once filed, DV charges have a life of their own). The cop, who was a 20-something macho Nazi-type, finally deigned to drop the charges at my client’s court appearance. Yet her record will live on and as the article states, so will her mug shot.

Potential employers hunt for reasons not to hire people. The mug shot posting business gives them even more fodder to exclude deserving people who may have had just one drunken night, ridden in a car with a careless friend or looked at a cop the wrong way. In this case freedom of the press can not be absolute. It will be interesting to follow this issue in the days ahead as one more instance of modern technology impacting individual rights in ways the Founding Fathers could never have dreamed.

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