New investigation sheds light on patient deaths at a New Orleans hospital in the days following Katrina

In the months following Katrina, chilling reports surfaced of the euthanasia of patients -- also known as "mercy killings" -- at some of New Orleans' hospitals during the chaotic days following the flooding.

In 2005, the Louisiana attorney general began a state investigation into the more than 200 deaths at hospitals and nursing homes in the days after Katrina. One major investigation centered on the allegations of "mercy killings" at the city's Memorial Medical Center.

What exactly happened at Memorial in the four days following the levee breaches and the flooding of New Orleans has been a contentious issue of debate and speculation. Several patients were alleged to have been killed via euthanasia in the wake of the storm. In 2006 a doctor and two nurses were arrested and charged with with second-degree murder for injecting four patients with a lethal cocktail of drugs. The following year the New Orleans grand jury declined to indict the doctor, Anna Pou, and the two nurses.

It was a controversial decision that surprised many in the legal profession and shocked the families of the victims, especially after news reports revealed that the grand jury refused to hear testimony from several key witnesses that would have testified that a decision had been made to administer lethal doses of morphine and the sedative Versed to patients, and from five medical experts that examined the bodies and concluded that as many as nine patients were deliberately murdered with drug overdoses.

ProPublica published a new investigation today that aims to shine a light on "what happened in the frantic days when Memorial was cut off from the world." The story contains interviews with people who were involved in the events at Memorial and the investigation that followed, and finds that more medical professionals -- beyond just Pou and the two nurses -- were involved in the decision to inject patients, and far more patients were injected than was previously thought to be the case.

The case may have faded from the headlines since the grand jury declined to indict Pou on second-degree murder charges, but the issues of medical ethics and disaster preparedness that the Memorial deaths brought up remain a major part of discussions in the medical community about how to handle disasters. Pou herself has become an advocate for health care professionals to be given immunity from most civil lawsuits, according to ProPublica.

As ProPublica explains:
The full details of what Pou did, and why, may never be known. But the arguments she is making about disaster preparedness -- that medical workers should be virtually immune from prosecution for good-faith work during devastating events and that lifesaving interventions, including evacuation, shouldn't necessarily go to the sickest first -- deserve closer attention. This is particularly important as health officials are now weighing, with little public discussion and insufficient scientific evidence, protocols for making the kind of agonizing decisions that will, no doubt, arise again.
Observers say not enough planning is currently being done on ways to manage the sick and disabled in national disasters and emergencies. A report released just this month by the National Council on Disability found that the disabled are left behind when it comes to national emergency and disaster plans, despite calls from lawmakers for better planning in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.