Reporter Examines Events At New Orleans Hospital

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, more than a dozen people were found dead in New Orleans' Memorial Medical Center with morphine or the quick-acting sedative midazolam in their system, prompting allegations that they were euthanized by medical professionals. A news story by ProPublica reporter Sheri Fink details the events at the hospital.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

As New Orleans marks the fourth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, the ferocious storm that devastated the city, we're going to focus today on what happened inside Memorial Medical Center during the crisis. More than 30 patients died in the hospital as doctors, nurses and administrators struggled with how to handle the evacuation and get their patients to safety. One doctor and two nurses were accused of euthanizing four patients, but a grand jury declined to indict them. There are still several civil suits underway.

Dr. Sheri Fink, a staff reporter for the independent investigative group, ProPublica, and an M.D., has been reporting on what happened in those harrowing hours inside the hospital for the last two and half years. Her story appears on ProPublica's Web site and is the lead feature in this Sunday's New York Times magazine. And Dr. Fink joins me from our New York bureau. Welcome to the program.

Dr. SHERI FINK (Reporter, ProPublica): Thank you.

SIEGEL: One of the central characters in this story is Dr. Anna Pou, who was the doctor who was first accused of euthanizing patients. And then she was not indicted. And as you write, she has emerged as a speaker on this subject of making emergency decisions in a disaster.

Dr. FINK: That's right. She has become a bit of a public figure. She's out representing her medical society in national efforts to look at how to allocate scarce resources in disasters. And she's spoken to a variety of audiences of health policy planners and hospital directors who are trying to look at these issues.

SIEGEL: Is it pretty well established, to your satisfaction or from all that you've learned about this, that she administered morphine and another anesthetic, I guess, to people who were not prescribed morphine, whose problem was not extreme pain?

Dr. FINK: Well, Dr. Pou has chosen not to talk about exactly what she did, and she cites the fact that there are ongoing lawsuits in that decision. But she has acknowledged that she did give medicines to certain patients. And in her description, that was to treat their pain. What is clear in the story of Memorial Medical Center is that at least a dozen and half people appeared to have been injected with morphine or this drug, a quick-acting sedative called Midazolam, and they died with those drugs in their systems. And my goal was really to try to shed light on what actually happened at the hospital.

SIEGEL: One thing that's pretty clear from your reporting is that there was a great deal of discussion, if not debate and anguish among the staff as people discussed what they should do for some of the sickest patients in the hospital.

Dr. FINK: Yeah, that is one of the sort of the fateful decisions that was made at Memorial Medical Center. A decision was made early on that anybody who had a do not resuscitate order, which, as you know, can sometimes go along with people who are very sick and sometimes people who are - who just have personal preferences, or do not wish to be resuscitated, do not wish to have CPR done on them for a variety of medical or personal reasons.

And then there was also a decision that the very sickest patients be evacuated last at a certain point. And those patients got much sicker in the context - and we're talking here about a horribly hot hospital. The power had been knocked out. There was flooding all around the hospital. They were waiting for evacuation helicopters that didn't come as quickly as people had hoped and expected that they would. And the health professionals were working on very, very little sleep, very exhausted. And so over time, these patients' conditions worsened. And that was the situation in which the staff was left on the day that these alleged events took place.

SIEGEL: The New Orleans coroner and the district attorney and finally a grand jury ultimately did not indict. I wonder if that reflects what New Orleanians felt about Katrina, which was that the city felt abandoned. It felt it was in chaos. They had no confidence that people would be rescued and the crises would be solved. And that - I think except for the U.S. Coast Guard, in my experience, no one regarded anyone as having behaved in an exemplary fashion during that time.

Dr. FINK: There was a lot of outrage when health care workers, of all people, were arrested after Katrina for the failures of Katrina. And you're very right to point that out. All of this occurred in a context of a much wider failure of government institutions. And I think my story raises the question of how we want to hold people accountable for their actions in that wider context. And perhaps, the grand jury's decision reflected some of that thinking. So I think when you and I, sitting here…

SIEGEL: Mm-hmm.

Dr. FINK: …in our air-conditioned radio studios are so far from what it felt like to be sleep-deprived and hot. And there was a level of panic and fear among some of the health professionals, and a level of desperation, and a feeling of being abandoned. And when you put yourself in that situation and think about the kinds of decisions you might make or I might make…

SIEGEL: Yeah.

Dr. FINK: …we might not always make decisions that we would have wanted to.

SIEGEL: Sheri Fink, thank you very much for talking with us…

Dr. FINK: Thank you for having me.

SIEGEL: …about your story.

That's ProPublica reporter, Dr. Sheri Fink.

Her story on Memorial Medical Center in New Orleans is on the ProPublica and New York Times Web sites.

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