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First Pages takes students to Katrina’s aftermath

With an award-winning author as their guide, Northeastern’s incoming first-year students this summer walked the halls of a New Orleans hospital immobilized by the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. What they saw was both uplifting and deeply concerning— heroism juxtaposed with ethically troubling decision-making.

The journey was made possible by Sheri Fink’s Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital, a New York Times bestseller and a landmark investigation of patient deaths at the city’s Memorial Medical Center. The book was selected for Northeastern’s First Pages program this year.

On Tuesday night at Matthews Arena, Fink spoke to Northeastern’s 2,800 newest students about covering a crisis that saw thousands of people trapped at the hospital after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005 and led medical staff to euthanize some of the hospital’s most critically ill patients.

“The important takeaway from this is that going through ethical dilemmas before we actually have to face them in real life can be very useful,” Fink said. “We can’t really know what we would do in this situation, but we can think about what we would want to have done if we faced this.”

Launched in 2006, the First Pages program requires incoming students—and encourages faculty, staff, and upperclassmen—to read a challenging book that highlights critical questions facing today’s students.

In welcoming remarks, Stephen W. Director, Northeastern’s provost and senior vice president for academic affairs, addressed the program’s goal. “I hope the book has and continues to stimulate a great deal of reflection and discussion on this campus about fundamental morals, public policy, and social issues of our day,” he said.

As a precursor to Tuesday’s talk, new students in Northeastern’s Honors Program attended a panel discussion on Thursday in Blackman Auditorium where three professors used Five Days at Memorial to discuss their research in English, philosophy, and medical law.

Fink, who holds a medical degree and doctorate from Stanford University, is a correspondent for The New York Times. She spent five days at Memorial Medical Center, which lost all power after its generators were destroyed by rising floodwaters. With no lights, air conditioning, or medical equipment, the medical staff adopted a triage system that prioritized the least sick patients for evacuation. In the months following the disaster, several health professionals faced criminal allegations.

Fink said not only did she want readers to think about what they would have done had they been at Memorial for those five fateful days, but she also hoped her book would be a catalyst for discussions on preparedness. “I think the hardest things to prepare for are the things we fear the most,” she said. “It’s hard to prioritize for catastrophes when we have everyday priorities.”

Arch Patel, E’19, said he was looking forward to Tuesday’s event because he had some questions after reading the book and, lo and behold, Fink managed to answer most of them. “It was a great extension of the book,” Patel said. “The idea of what people do in certain situations has been festering in my mind all summer.”

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