A doctor and two nurses have been arrested on suspicion of second-degree murder for allegedly administering lethal drugs to patients at a hospital while it was marooned in Hurricane Katrina’s floodwaters without electricity or running water, state authorities announced Tuesday.
The hospital, Memorial Medical Center, was emblematic of the near-total breakdown of New Orleans’ emergency and healthcare systems after rising water breached the levee system Aug. 29. Scores of employees stayed at the hospital and struggled to care for hundreds of stranded patients as the electric generator died, rescue efforts stalled and temperatures soared above 100 degrees. When substantial help arrived six days later, 41 patients were dead.
The circumstances may have been dire, but Louisiana Atty. Gen. Charles C. Foti Jr. -- whose office made the arrests -- suggested that the suspects deliberately crossed an ethical barrier. The documents released by Foti’s office Tuesday included dramatic accounts by purported eyewitnesses to the alleged fatal injections.
“We’re talking about people who pretended that maybe they were God,” Foti said at a news conference in Baton Rouge. “And they made that decision.
“This is not euthanasia,” he added. “It’s homicide.”
The suspects, Dr. Anna Pou, 50, and nurses Lori L. Budo, 43, and Cheri A. Landry, 49, were arrested Monday and released on bail. Each is charged with injecting four patients with a deadly cocktail of morphine and the drug midazolam, also known as Versed.
Thus far, they are facing only preliminary charges. In Louisiana, the attorney general can make an arrest on suspicion of a crime, but the district attorney must file the formal charge. A spokeswoman for the Orleans Parish district attorney’s office said Tuesday that a decision would be made once the findings in the case were received from the attorney general.
If charged and convicted, each faces the possibility of life in prison.
Richard T. Simmons Jr., attorney for Pou, insisted Tuesday that his client was innocent and said she would “vigorously contest” the charges.
Pou, an ear, nose and throat specialist, is an experienced doctor who has won numerous awards and published research in a number of scientific journals, according to a resume posted on the website of the Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center, where she is an associate professor.
Foti said it was likely there would be “more arrests and victims.” Investigators think 14 other patients could have been injected with the two drugs, and they have “strong evidence” that nine of those patients were definitely injected, said Kris Wartelle, a spokeswoman for the attorney general.
The arrests are part of a wider investigation of healthcare and elderly facilities the attorney general has been conducting since September. Shortly after the storm, the owners of a suburban nursing home were charged with negligent homicide for failing to evacuate 34 people who eventually died there. Wartelle said that employees of one other nursing home in Orleans Parish would probably face charges in another case.
The suspects in the Memorial case were employees of Tenet Healthcare Corp. of Dallas, which owns Memorial Medical Center.
The four victims were being treated on the seventh floor in an independently run acute-care facility owned and staffed by LifeCare Holdings Inc. of Plano, Texas, according to an affidavit filed by state investigators. LifeCare’s lawyers alerted investigators on Sept. 14 to the suspicious deaths.
The alleged slayings occurred Sept. 1, the fourth day of the disaster. By that point, according to eyewitness accounts, hospital personnel had begun ferrying some patients with the help of a small fleet of private rescue boats. But it was difficult to move the sickest of them because the elevators didn’t work. Bodies filled the chapel as well as the morgue.
That morning, LifeCare employees approached Susan Mulderick, the incident commander at Memorial, and asked her what the hospital planned to do about evacuating the LifeCare unit’s patients. Mulderick said they “were not going to leave any living patients behind.” She then told them to find Pou.
In the affidavit, a number of LifeCare employees described Pou’s subsequent rounds on the seventh floor, and the help she allegedly received from the nurses.
According to one witness, Pou said “a decision had been made to administer lethal doses” to the nine remaining patients in critical condition on the seventh floor.
Another witness said Pou had determined that their patients would not survive. She also thought they were unconscious. But a LifeCare worker told Pou that one patient, a 380-pound paralyzed man, was “aware, conscious and alive.”
Pou, however, determined that the man could not be evacuated. She asked if there was a LifeCare worker who would sedate the man, but a supervisor refused on behalf of the staff.
Pou told the witness “that they didn’t have a lot of time and that she needed to clear the floors as soon as they could,” the affidavit said.
Later, Pou reportedly said, “I want y’all to know I take full responsibility and y’all did a great job taking care of patients.”
One LifeCare worker claims to have seen Pou and the two nurses draw a substance from vials into syringes and inject a patient.
After the floodwaters receded, autopsies of the bodies were conducted. Samples of liver, brain and muscle were tested and found to contain portions of the two drugs. A forensic pathologist reviewed the records of the four patients and found that none were supposed to be receiving the drugs as part of their care plans.
Nurses Budo and Landry, who allegedly helped Pou, were identified by witnesses from photographs.
Tammie Holley, an attorney for the families of several patients who died at Memorial, said her clients would get “no closure” from Tuesday’s announcement.
“I feel that they have been victimized twice,” Holley said. “It’s bad enough that they were not evacuated. But to be murdered ... “
In a statement issued Tuesday, Tenet HealthCare said the allegations were “very disturbing” if true.
“Euthanasia is repugnant to everything we believe as ethical healthcare providers, and it violates every precept of ethical behavior and the law,” the statement said. “It is never permissible under any circumstances.”
Tenet also praised the “courageous actions of many, many physicians and caregivers at Memorial Medical Center, who worked under incredibly difficult circumstances to care for and evacuate patients in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, with little or no help from local, state or federal authorities.”
Late last month, the troubled hospital company -- which lost more than $3 billion in the last three years -- agreed to a $900-million settlement with the federal government over allegations that it bilked Medicare.
The New Orleans-based Ochsner Health System announced Tuesday that it was buying Memorial and two other hospitals from Tenet.
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Events surrounding the suspicious hospital deaths:
Aug. 29: Hurricane Katrina makes landfall east of New Orleans, causing one levee to break.
Aug. 30: A second levee breaks, flooding 80% of New Orleans. Water reaches 10 feet deep around Memorial Medical Center.
Aug. 31: Some patients and staff are evacuated by boat and taken to dry ground, but evacuations halt when authorities run out of ground transport.
Sept. 1: Several patients allegedly are given lethal doses of morphine and a sedative.
Sept. 2: Remaining patients and staff are airlifted from the hospital.
Sept. 11: Search teams find more than 40 bodies in the flooded hospital; many are floating on the first floor.
Sept. 14: LifeCare Holdings Inc., which leased space at Memorial, reports possible mercy killings of patients to authorities.
Oct. 3: Louisiana Atty. Gen. Charles C. Foti Jr. announces an investigation into rumors of euthanized patients at the hospital. Seventy-three people are subpoenaed.
Dec. 7: Investigators perform an inventory of the pharmacy.
July 18: Dr. Anna Pou and nurses Cheri A. Landry and Lori L. Budo are arrested in connection with four deaths at the hospital.
Source: Associated Press
Los Angeles Times