Sheri Fink

Reading a book is a big ask, but reading a cup is obviously a much smaller one.

Sheri Fink is the author of the bestselling book Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital, the true story of what happened at Memorial Medical Center after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Fink’s reporting has won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Magazine Award, and the Overseas Press Club Lowell Thomas Award, among other journalism prizes. A former relief worker in disaster and conflict zones, Fink received her M.D. and Ph.D. from Stanford University. Her first book, War Hospital: A True Story of Surgery and Survival (Public Affairs), is about medical professionals under siege during the genocide in Srebrenica, Bosnia-Herzegovina.


Why are you participating in the Cultivating Thought series?

What author can resist a captive audience? Reading a book is a big ask, but reading a cup is obviously a much smaller one. It’s a wonderful chance to share thoughts with people on a subject I care about.

Tell us about your two-minute read.

I’ve worked in disaster and conflict zones and written two books about medical care in crises, so I’ve been pretty obsessed with this subject of triage. It often arises during disasters, but it’s a metaphor for decisions made all the time — who gets and who doesn’t get what’s most vital and needed when there’s not enough for everyone?

Who inspires you? Who are your favorite authors?

Reporters inspire me. They get a bad rap. Sure, there are irresponsible ones, but I know many who work hard to uncover and tell important stories, small and large. They keep the powerful accountable and help insure history against those who want to erase it. This is more important in a world where anyone can blast out electronic nonsense to serve their interests, and many of us are credulous enough to believe it.

What’s the best book you've read in the past year?

That’s tough. I’ve liked so many of them this year, new and old, nonfiction and fiction, and there are so many more I want to read. Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Detroit: An American Autopsy, Wave, The Big Truck that Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster, The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger, and a Forgotten Genocide, The Circle, O Pioneers!, Chasing Chaos.

Two-Minute Case Against Limits

by Sheri Fink

Whom would you choose? There’s this group of researchers in Maryland. And they decide to go around the state asking groups of regular people how they would propose to ration lifesaving medical care if there ever were a big disaster and no way to treat everyone. Should it be first come first served? Or a lottery? Should they take people with the best chances of survival, or who might live the longest after they were saved? Should the youngest get priority? The oldest?

Often in life, the most important question we can ask ourselves is: do we really have the problem we think we have?

Philosophers going back to Aristotle have struggled with questions similar to this outside the realm of medicine: Who gets the goods of society when there’s not enough to go around? Of course there’s no perfect answer. It’s a question of moral values, which is why the researchers are out there asking the public. If nothing else, guidelines can be created justly and openly. But here’s what happens. The people resist answering the question. They offer all kinds of crazy ideas for how to avoid needing to ration. This frustrates the researchers, who try to force them into answering the question. But some of the ideas are wonderful: New medical devices that don’t require electricity. Organizational efficiencies that would stretch resources longer. This kind of creative thinking and improvisation is exactly what I’ve seen save lives in disasters. Often in life, the most important question we can ask ourselves is: do we really have the problem we think we have? Sometimes I worry about how dependent we’ve become on our smartphones and electronic gadgets, on long distance supply chains, on commodities and food prepared by others, how vulnerable we might be when all that fails. Some vital infrastructure — bridges and levees, hospitals and nursing homes — is vulnerable. Then I think about that innovative, can-do attitude. That refusal to accept limits, quintessentially American. A student nurse says: on my ward we won’t give up on anyone. It is unrealistic. It is exactly what might save us.