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Print to Projector: The Deadly Choices At Memorial

By  · Published on February 5th, 2011

As the only literate Reject, it’s my duty to find the latest, the greatest and the untouched classics that would make great source material for film adaptations. I read so you don’t have to.

A hospital full of doctors, nurses and patients looks out on a city under siege by the deadly force of a category 5 hurricane. The water level is rising, the electricity will give out eventually, and a group of medical practitioners that are exhausted by 40+ hours of work without sleep have to make the crucial decisions about who has a chance of living and who doesn’t.

Sound dramatic enough? Of course it does. Because it happened.

The hurricane is Hurricane Katrina, the hospital is Memorial in New Orleans, and the decisions were impossible.

Yes, it would make one hell of a movie.

The Deadly Choices At Memorial

By Sheri Fink

“The smell of death was overpowering the moment a relief worker cracked open one of the hospital chapel’s wooden doors.”


On August 30, 2005 – a day after Hurricane Katrina made landfall – the workers inside Memorial Hospital stared out at rising water that was promising to kill their electricity and threaten the lives of nearly 200 patients. An evacuation plan had to be put into place.

In the most desperate of situations, a group of doctors had to make some unthinkable decisions that didn’t show up on the ethics exam during year one of medical school. In the end, at least 17 patients were injected with a lethal dosage of sedative in order to hasten death, and the group decided to evacuate patients more likely to live over those with Do Not Resuscitate orders.

The details to the story are complex – at least far more complex than a few sentences of summation can entail. There was a steady stream of new obstacles to hurdle and internal disagreement to magnify it all. That’s part of why Sheri Fink’s article won the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. The aftermath of one of the deadliest hurricanes in history was a quagmire of different lawsuits, and among the court cases, Dr. Anna Pou found herself facing possible second degree murder charges. That’s first degree without the planning. Let that sink in.

The story of what happened at Memorial is challenging. It features heroes and villains in equal measure depending on your point of view. It’s this compelling story, though, that has incredible potential to enlighten, frustrate, question, and raise awareness as a movie.

Potential Problems

It would need a bigger shelf for all the awards it would win?

This thing is the kind of Oscar-caliber drama that would garner mountains of praise as long as it wasn’t handled as complete Oscar bait. It needs heart and detail on top of its premise.

Beyond getting rights for all of the real-life characters, the real difficulty of the movie would be telling the story in its complexity without undoing history in service of a falsely manufactured Good Guy and Bad Guy. There aren’t any of those here. They’re all just human beings struggling against a destructive force and making decisions no one reading this (or writing it) would ever wish upon their worst enemy. Displaying the dynamic nature of it all is a challenge for the best of the best in all facets of production.

The Pitch

Directing: This will not be an easy story to tell, and it requires the steadiest dramatic hand at the wheel. Someone who can create tension without dehumanizing, build a drama without injecting it with the makings of a soap opera. There may be only a handful of directors that could pull this off, but for what it’s worth, my money is on Never Let Me Go director Mark Romanek. He can clearly draw some great performances out of actors and create a haunting environment. This would be a faster pace than he’s worked with in the past, but that challenge would make for great drive in telling the story.

Writing: If only Michael Crichton were still around. He would absolutely be the best choice for this material. There’s also something intriguing about the prospect of seeing Schindler’s List writer Steve Zaillian tackling a hospital drama. He’s known for writing scripts with a number of moving parts and moving ethical sensibilities, and his sense for the dramatic is almost without peer.


Kate Winslet as Dr. Anna Pou: Winslet would need to age up a bit to play the role, but as the article describes Pou as “passionate, with coiffed cinnamon hair and a penchant for pearls, Pou was funny and sociable, and she had put her patients at the center of her life,” it seems as though Winslet might make the best choice for the role. Her acting credentials go without saying.

Meryl Streep as Susan Mulderick: The “no-nonsense” nursing director was in charge of hospital operations during the crisis and makes for a strong central figure even as she’s not the main character. Again, Streep’s talents go without saying.

Bob Gunton as Dr. Ewing Cook: A lung specialist who turns people away from the hospital and makes the call to give a morphine overdose to at least two patients in order to accelerate their deaths. Gunton is a formidable character actor – probably most known for his role as the warden in Shawshank, but the role here wouldn’t be a flat villain. It would be a complex character making what he felt were the best decisions under a situation of duress.

Laura Innes as Diane Robichaux: I’ve never understood why Innes hasn’t been as active in movies even though she’s done a lot of television. Her work on ER is what specifically qualifies her here to play an administrator for LifeCare (a separate entity which rented one of the hospital floors and focused on patients with drastic needs). Innes would easily handle a role where she butts heads with staff that want to leave her 52 patients behind. In real life, Robichaux was seven months pregnant at the time.

The cast would also need a ton of hospital workers and families of patients who come forward after the devastation to claim that doctors euthanized their loved ones.

A note on casting: I was unable to find pictures of Mulderick and Robichaux, so I wasn’t sure what race they are. Fortunately, no matter what race, there are competent award-caliber actors out there to play the roles.

Who Owns It:

This is a tough one. The author retains rights of the article, but there’s a question of life rights considering these are all real people, and that could be tricky considering the sensitive nature of everything (and the legal nature of court actions still being enacted).

The Projection:

If The Deadly Choices at Memorial was made (or if it were simply called Memorial), it would win awards. Hands down. There’s no question about it. The subject matter is insanely monumental, and with a talented cast able to build a nuanced, humane, difficult movie, the end result could only be acclaim. Is it too soon for a movie of this type? Perhaps. But at some point, our national emotional level will make room for it, and this story could make a serious impact.

Did the doctors provide comfort and utilize their talents and limited resources to save more lives? Was it out and out euthanasia? There are no easy answers, and hopefully, this movie wouldn’t attempt to give any. It would be difficult to watch unfold, but it could be an immeasurably important piece of art.

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