Published On: Sun, Jun 19th, 2022

Review: “The Desperate Hours,” Marie Brenner

In the end, of course, Hupert was correct: Before long, there was an enormous increase in infections, hospitalizations and deaths. “There are people who are being dropped out of cars and they are blue and their cars are driving away,” a doctor told Brenner. Compounding the disaster was that little guidance was coming from executives on how to navigate the crisis, including how to potentially ration beds and ventilators (which fortunately did not come to pass). “The amount of moral damage they did to a lot of people while they get paid millions of dollars is disgusting,” a critical-care physician says bitterly.

Moreover, there are disturbing care inequities. New York-Presbyterian’s Lower Manhattan Hospital had a Covid mortality rate that was more than twice that at the flagship Weill Cornell, in no small part because of disparities in resources. A group of doctors drafted a letter calling for a more equitable distribution of people and equipment, but to no avail. At the end of the day, “the gelato floors would always come first,” Brenner writes, referring to the V.I.P. wards at Weill Cornell.

“The Desperate Hours” isn’t easy reading — and not just because of the gargantuan missteps by leaders in the government and at New York-Presbyterian itself. The narrative gets muddled by the sheer number of characters in the book. Not infrequently I found myself turning back to the three-page list of more than 100 characters to orient myself. Focusing on the experience of a few men and women would have created a more coherent narrative. Compounding this problem are the many narrative breaks to fill in back stories. Some of them are interesting and relevant. Many are not. Additionally, because the book is based on hundreds of after-the-fact interviews, the stories often lack immediacy and tension. We are told about the drama, but we don’t really see it.

Despite these flaws, Brenner does an admirable job of showing how workers at a major health system persevered through once-in-a-century circumstances, even at great personal and professional costs. “You could not use the term PTSD,” a psychologist says about the experience. “The trauma is ongoing. This is not post-traumatic stress disorder. This is ongoing stress disorder.”

Sandeep Jauhar is the author, most recently, of “Heart: A History.” His new book, “My Father’s Brain: A Memoir of Life in the Shadow of Alzheimer’s,” will be published next year.

THE DESPERATE HOURS: One Hospital’s Fight to Save a City on the Pandemic’s Front Lines, by Marie Brenner | 496 pp. | Flatiron Books | $29.99

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