Journalism in the Public Interest

Deadly Choices

The Deadly Choices at Memorial

Paolo Pellegrin/Magnum

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.

Read more »

  • 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.
Our Partner

The original story was co-published with the New York Times Magazine and appeared in that magazine on Aug. 30, 2009. Read the original story.

Class-Action Suit Filed After Katrina Hospital Deaths Settled for $25 Million

The agreement ends the action against Tenet Healthcare brought by families of people who said Memorial Medical Center in New Orleans was ill-prepared for a hurricane.

Lawsuit Against New Orleans Hospital Settles Shortly After Trial Begins

A case brought on behalf of people trapped in Memorial Hospital ends before any testimony is heard.

Trial to Open in Lawsuit Connected to Hospital Deaths After Katrina

A class-action lawsuit involving a hospital where an unusually high number of patients died after Hurricane Katrina is expected to raise issues of responsibility for disaster preparedness.

New Orleans Coroner Rules Post-Katrina Death ‘Unclassified’

A New Orleans coroner says he can't determine what killed a 79-year-old woman who died at Memorial Medical Center after Hurricane Katrina. Though the patient had been given lots of morphine, "she had a lot of physiologic reasons to die," the coroner said. The ruling makes it highly unlikely that any charges will be brought in the case.

District Attorney in Louisiana Evaluates Statements on Patient Deaths

ProPublica's report on the chaos after Hurricane Katrina prompts questions from a prosecutor, but not a formal investigation.

Slate Follows Up on Our Katrina Hospital Investigation—And We Follow Up Too

Questions and answers concerning the chaotic, tragic evacuation at Memorial Medical Center in New Orleans.

Get Updates

Our Hottest Stories