'The Deadly Choices at Memorial,' The New York Times Magazine
This entry won second place in the large magazines category of the 2009 Awards for Excellence in Health Care Journalism.
Judges' comments: Sheri Fink went behind the scenes – and back in time – to craft this meticulous account of the events that took place at New Orleans' Memorial Medical Center in the critical hours after Katrina's floodwaters first surrounded the hospital, then caused the failure of the emergency power supplies sustaining critically ill patients. Through extensive interviews and new research, Fink explored the reasoning behind the life-and-death decisions made while staff and patients were awaiting evacuation, but unsure when and if it would arrive. Her compelling reporting from a variety of vantage points helps explain why the events at Memorial during those tense hours continue to be the focus of debate and controversy long after Katrina's floodwaters have receded.
1. Provide the title of your story or series and the names of the journalists involved. (Although the entry form limits you to listing the three main reporters, you may mention others who helped here.)
''The Deadly Choices at Memorial," by Sheri Fink. Editors: Stephen Engelberg (ProPublica), lIena Silverman (The New York Times Magazine), Susan VVhite (ProPublica)
2. List date(s) this work was published or aired.
August 30, 2009 (print); August 27,2009 (web)
3. Provide a brief synopsis of the story or stories, including any significant findings.
A 13,000-word chronicle of what happened when floodwaters rose, generators failed, and a New Orleans hospital was cut off from the world. Among the key findings: Several health professionals from Memorial acknowledged that they had deliberately injected severely ill patients to hasten their deaths. More patients than previously suspected had been injected before their deaths, the vast majority after a long-awaited rescue effort was at last under way.
4. Explain types of documents, data or Internet resources used. Were FOI or public records act requests required? How did this affect the work?
Thousand of pages of documents were used, including preViously undisclosed investigative records, depositions, medical records, toxicology reports, weather records, public records releases and photographs. The disaster medicine literature and hospital accrediting standards were researched. The archives of the Southem Baptist Convention in Nashville provided insight into the hospital's early history, and decades of hospital newsletters, staff memos, and annual reports were also read.
5. Explain types of human sources used.
These included hospital personnel, patients and family members as well as experts in fields such as disaster medicine, palliative care, and biomedical and military medical ethics. Among them, two doctors described at length their involvement in injecting patients with medications to hasten their deaths. I spent Hurricane Gustav in one of the city's hospitals to experience first hand the fear, uncertainty and disorder that even a far less deadly hurricane unleashes.
6. Results (if any).
The New Orleans coroner launched an investigation into the death of one of the patients written about in the story. The story was used by an Institute of Medicine panel crafting national guidance on how to deal with shortages of life-saving equipment during a disaster. The story received widespread media attention and is being used as a teaching aid in a range of university courses.
7. Follow-up (if any). Have you run a correction or clarification on the report or has anyone come forward to challenge its accuracy? If so, please explain.
No correction or clarifications have been run on "The Deadly Choices at Memorial." One physician mentioned briefly in the article has filed a claim for defamation and false light. It is being vigorously defended by the New York Times and ProPublica, who will soon move to strike the complaint on grounds including the truth of the article.
8. Advice to other journalists planning a similar story or project.
Be insatiable when it comes to knowing your subject. Question your assumptions and triangulate multiple pieces of information.
Keep a detailed timeline of events and a running "to do" list of questions for different sources and documents that need to be obtained. Rough out a structure in advance of writing. When necessary, seek additional sources of funding to help sustain a lengthy project and one that requires many research and reporting trips.
In an article exclusively for AHCJ, Fink shares tips on covering a complex story for the long haul.