Investigating Katrina Hospital Deaths

In the days after Katrina, 45 people died at the Memorial Medical Center in New Orleans, LA before they could be evacuated. Paul Raeburn talks with Dr. Sheri Fink about what happened, and her forthcoming feature story in the New York Times Magazine on the topic.

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PAUL RAEBURN, host:

Now, we're going to switch gears quite a bit. As many of you know, it's the fourth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. In the days after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, most of us sat transfixed in front of our TVs and watched, horrified, as the water rose and the city was swallowed. We saw trapped people climbing up to rooftops begging to be saved. We saw desperate animals floating in the floodwaters and all kinds of horrible things that are painful to remember.

But what we did not see was inside New Orleans Memorial Medical Center, where hospital doctors and nurses frantically worked to save their patients as the water rose, the power went out and help from the outside world did not arrive. Forty-five patients at Memorial Medical Center died before they could be evacuated. Now, we're getting a horrifying look inside that hospital, thanks to an article in Sunday's New York Times magazine.

Joining me now to talk more about it is the author Dr. Sheri Fink. She's a staff reporter for ProPublica, the independent, nonprofit investigative organization, also an MD.

Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Dr. Fink.

Dr. SHERI FINK (Staff Reporter, ProPublica; Author, "War Hospital: A True Story of Surgery and Survival"): Thank you for having me.

RAEBURN: Now, before we talk about how you got this incredible story, tell us quickly, without giving away all the punch lines so we can read it for ourselves on Sunday, what you found.

Dr. FINK: Sure. Well, I think many people remember the arrest of a well-respected physician, head and neck surgeon Dr. Anna Pou, about a year after Katrina. And she was accused at that time, as well as two ICU nurses of having - of second-degree murder in the deaths of four patients at this hospital, basically…

RAEBURN: Killing their patients.

Dr. FINK: …basically, you know, euphemizes as mercy killings. And then of course, what happened was that she was not indicted, and the story kind of went away. And everybody was left just questions. Nobody really knew what it was that had happened there.

And so what I was able to do was go back and, thanks to some very, you know, people who are very brave and willing to talk about what went on there and what their roles were, found out that there weren't just four patients who had received morphine and midazolam - it's a fast-acting sedative - before they died on Thursday, September 1st, but, in fact, there were about 17 people that day, at least, who, my investigation ahs shown, received those drugs. And it wasn't just…

RAEBURN: Who might've been victims of mercy killings, if the allegation is correct.

Dr. FINK: Well, that's the question is, why were the drugs given? And that was the second part of what I found was that there were more health professionals involved, doctors and nurses. And three of them spoke with me about why they gave these drugs. One of them said, as Dr. Pou has, that it was simply to treat pain and to comfort the patients. But two physicians were - basically told me that they intentionally hastened death. And they did so for what they believed are good reasons. And they stick by that to this day.

RAEBURN: Let me pause for just a moment to remind folks I'm Paul Raeburn. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

Now, I don't quite understand, Dr. Pou, is how it's pronounced, was indicted. She was indicted?

Dr. FINK: She was never indicted.

RAEBURN: She was not indicted.

Dr. FINK: She was brought before - or her case was brought before a grand jury and they refused to indict her. And of course, they had to look at the evidence and perhaps, we can get into sort of some of the scientific difficulty of looking at evidence in bodies. These bodies were not recovered from the hospital until September 11th, '05, so they had sat in over 100-degree heat for about 10 days after their deaths. And then forensic pathologists had to look at those bodies and decide whether there was any evidence of wrongdoing.

RAEBURN: So, that's a difficult challenge. But why did the prosecutors move ahead so aggressively? What was the basis for that action?

Dr. FINK: I think the basis for that action was two-fold: One is that witnesses stepped forward who alleged that Dr. Pou had come up to the LifeCare floor - this was a long-term acute care hospital within the hospital, within Memorial - and had indicated that she wanted to give these medicines to these patients and then had done so. They alleged to hasten deaths. And, so that was one part of the evidence. And the other part was the scientific evidence, the fact that morphine and/or midazolam were found in all of these bodies.

RAEBURN: So, how did you - has some of this been reported in the New Orleans Times-Picayune or in local press? And how did you manage to get the story? You're based in New York City.

Dr. FINK: Yes. Well, I made a lot of trips down to New Orleans. And there's been really, really fine reporting earlier in terms of, you know, reporting the basics of the allegations. And then, of course, Dr. Pou came out very strongly on "60 Minutes" saying that she had given the drugs just for comfort reasons. So, there had been a lot of reporting. But the story kind of went away. And people didn't really know what it was that went on.

And I think that there was a limit to what science could tell us in this case until people stepped forward and talked about what the rationale was and why they felt that what they did was right.

RAEBURN: Okay. We're just about out of time. I'm dying to know what else you uncovered and what happened. I'm going to refer everybody to the same place I'm going to go look to find out, which is this Sunday's New York Times magazine where it' the cover story, is that right?

Dr. FINK: Yes.

RAEBURN: Great. So check that out - a really, really fascinating story. I'd like to thank Dr. Sheri Fink for being with us. She's a staff reporter for ProPublica in New York. Thanks, Sheri.

Dr. FINK: Thank you.

RAEBURN: And thanks to all of you for joining me today.

If you have questions or comments, write to us at SCIENCE FRIDAY, 4 West 43rd St. Room 306, New York, New York, 10036; or drop us an e-mail at scifri@np.org. Check out sciencefriday.com for Flora's wonderful cooked hollandaise sauce video and for much information on links to today's program.

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For NPR News in New York, I'm Paul Raeburn.

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