The smell of death was overpowering the moment a relief worker cracked open one of the hospital chapel’s wooden doors. Inside, more than a dozen bodies lay motionless on low cots and on the ground, shrouded in white sheets. Here, a wisp of gray hair peeked out. There, a knee was flung akimbo. A pallid hand reached across a blue gown.
Within days, the grisly tableau became the focus of an investigation into what happened when the floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina marooned Memorial Medical Center in Uptown New Orleans. The hurricane knocked out power and running water and sent the temperatures inside above 100 degrees. Still, investigators were surprised at the number of bodies in the makeshift morgue and were stunned when health care workers charged that a well-regarded doctor and two respected nurses had hastened the deaths of some patients by injecting them with lethal doses of drugs. Mortuary workers eventually carried 45 corpses from Memorial, more than from any comparable-size hospital in the drowned city.
Investigators pored over the evidence, and in July 2006, nearly a year after Katrina, Louisiana Department of Justice agents arrested the doctor and the nurses in connection with the deaths of four patients. The physician, Anna Pou, defended herself on national television, saying her role was to ‘‘help’’ patients ‘‘through their pain,’’ a position she maintains today. After a New Orleans grand jury declined to indict her on second-degree murder charges, the case faded from view.
In the four years since Katrina, Pou has helped write and pass three laws in Louisiana that offer immunity to health care professionals from most civil lawsuits — though not in cases of willful misconduct — for their work in future disasters, from hurricanes to terrorist attacks to pandemic influenza. The laws also encourage prosecutors to await the findings of a medical panel before deciding whether to prosecute medical professionals. Pou has also been advising state and national medical organizations on disaster preparedness and legal reform; she has lectured on medicine and ethics at national conferences and addressed military medical trainees. In her advocacy, she argues for changing the standards of medical care in emergencies. She has said that informed consent is impossible during disasters and that doctors need to be able to evacuate the sickest or most severely injured patients last — along with those who have Do Not Resuscitate orders — an approach that she and her colleagues used as conditions worsened after Katrina.
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- What It Means Today: Sheri Fink talks with Bruce Shapiro of the Dart Center about the impact and importance of the events at Memorial Medical Center.