Sheri Fink Addresses the Ethics of Decision-Making during Disaster

September 25, 2015

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by Michaela Bragg, ’17

New York Times bestselling author Sheri Fink challenged societal ethics and values in her lecture, “Five Days at Memorial: Sustainability and Preparedness from Katrina to Ebola,” on September 22. She addressed the ethics of decision-making that medical professionals practice during times of disaster.

Fink told listeners that she has learned from her experiences in reporting crises such as Hurricane Katrina and the Ebola panic that emergencies can give people “special vision goggles” to help them see problems such as inequality within society.

Fink also explained the inequality highlighted by the Ebola crisis. Ethical issues in this situation centered on who should be prioritized as the recipients of treatment. Fink stated that two components go into this decision-making process: what society values most (i.e. victims’ potential or fragility) and who the decision makers are. In both the Ebola crisis and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, doctors were responsible for the decisions.

Bringing the topic of inequality and ethics closer to home, Fink gave students, faculty and community members an inside look at how one hospital affected by Hurricane Katrina handled floodwaters, loss of power and hundreds of patients. In this case, Intensive Care Unit patients and babies were evacuated first, and the sickest patients were the last priority. The deaths that resulted from this thought process brought the ethics of saving lives into the spotlight—particularly because other hospitals were more successful through prioritizing differently.

Fink concluded her lecture by telling the audience how creative thinking and flexibility can be most helpful when navigating a crisis. She said that the ability to improvise—coupled with a well-structured game plan ahead of time—can lead to improved sustainability in times of crisis. This led her to what she deemed the take-home message: “Even in the midst of big challenges, you as an individual can make a difference.” Fink encouraged listeners by saying that all it can take is one person using improvisation and problem-solving to save lives.

Students in the audience were challenged by Fink to take advantage of their multidisciplinary education from Bridgewater College, to add to it experience and passion and to make a difference in one of the three components of sustainability during disaster: infrastructure, organizations or individual preparedness.

Fink’s appearance at Bridgewater was sponsored by the W. Harold Row Lecture Series.