As a disabled person for whom going to the hospital is already a terrifying experience, “Five Days at Memorial” triggered me. It took several weeks to get over watching all eight episodes of the Apple TV+ limited series, an adaptation of Sheri Fink’s nonfiction investigation “Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital.” The book and the TV show focus on the doctors and patients stranded at Memorial Medical Center during Hurricane Katrina. When the floodwaters receded in 2005, 45 dead bodies were discovered in the hospital’s basement, with allegations that at least two patients were euthanized.
“Five Days” is based on a book about doctors’ experiences, but those experiences hinge on questions surrounding euthanasia and the disabled. Presenting disabled people in emergencies as nameless characters stuck in some kind of moral gray area tells us that if you’re disabled, “first do no harm” does not apply.
Disabled people aren’t always able to speak for themselves in a hospital setting. We’re often talked down to, infantilized, or see our pain and concerns minimized. In a 2014 article by Dr. Leana S. Wen for The Washington Post, she noted that 57 million adults and 5.2 million children in the U.S. have a disability (about 20 percent of the U.S. population), but “little attention is devoted to teaching future doctors how to care for people with speech disorders or other disabilities.”
The series does its best to showcase the heroism of Memorial and LifeCare doctors who stayed with patients during an unprecedented disaster that included lack of air-conditioning, food, water, and sanitary facilities. It also speaks to a continued issue in the American healthcare system that we only saw increase during the COVID-19 pandemic: rationing of care.
Care rationing has been present in every major natural disaster from Katrina to Covid and it is a massive fear to the disabled community. The disabled are often believed to be sickly and weak. We’re expected to die early, so in a situation where it becomes survival of the fittest the disabled are not generally considered the top of the totem pole. As “Memorial” shows, a person who’s ambulatory, regardless of age, is worth saving no matter what.
The aftermath of Memorial Hospital yielded no real protections for disabled people. A grand jury in New Orleans failed to indict Dr. Anna Pou (Vera Farmiga in the series) or any other nurses suspected of helping her euthanize patients. In fact, according to a 2009 New York Times Magazine article that Fink wrote before the publication of “Five Days,” Pou helped write and passed three laws in Louisiana that gave immunity from civil lawsuits for health care workers accused of any crimes that take place during a mass casualty event.
In 2020, disability groups filed complaints against Kansas and Tennessee for the states’ “crisis of care” guidelines, which cut care to people who used home ventilators. In New York, guidelines stated “that a person who shows up at a hospital with their personal home ventilator could have it taken from them and given to someone else.” The Office for Civil Rights at the Department of Health and Human Services opened investigations, but those disappeared once COVID vaccines became open to the public. The Tennessee case was settled earlier this year, while there’s been no update on where the case in Kansas currently stands. “Five Days” is an inadvertent reminder that with every disaster comes care rationing unless the people this series is marketed toward, i.e. the able-bodied, do something about it.
However, this perspective is missing from “Five Days at Memorial.” Outside of medical professionals, the only disabled patient we learn about on the show is Emmett Everett (Damon Standifer), a 380-pound paraplegic who was at the hospital to await surgery for a bowel obstruction. We learn only that Emmett is a charming man and, when the hurricane hits, he’s desperate to speak with his wife.
The series presents Everett’s death as ambiguous; we don’t know if he died in the face of circumstantial crisis or euthanasia, a storytelling choice that would push the series to make a point. It’s a scenario I call the “Tiny Tim Principle,” where medical scenes involving disabled characters serve as reflections of how good or bad the doctors are at their jobs. In these situations, the disabled patients are generally smiling, grateful, and saintly. Since we don’t learn about any of the affected victims, the audience must rely on the doctors to give the characters’ lives meaning.
Medical shows often fall into “caretaker entertainment,” shows about those who care for the disabled rather than the disabled themselves. In “Five Days at Memorial,” one man becomes a fire department volunteer so he can storm the hospital to save his mother. A woman caring for her dying mother is forcibly taken out of the hospital when it’s evacuated, leaving her mother to die. In these moments, the disabled person watching the series is left emotionally ravaged — but the series’ storytelling with its slow-motion and somber music tells us to how sad it is that these able-bodied people are told to leave.
Yes, “Five Days at Memorial” wasn’t ever meant to be about disability or the patients themselves. But it could have certainly critiqued ableism, especially in natural disaster situations. It’s why disabled people need to be in writer’s rooms working on scripts. There were opportunities to have these characters look at their own able-bodied privilege and illustrate that problems like these remain far too common.
“Five Days at Memorial” streams every Friday on Apple TV+.